“If you want to kill a child’s passion in anything, set them an exam on it”
I think it was the late Professor Ted Wragg who coined that phrase. About ten years ago I wrote an article moaning about the culture of exams in the UK. This was around the time I was approaching what were nominally to be my university finals. This was to be my tenth summer in a row that I had faced one sort of examination or another – five of which involved a public exam of one sort or another
For those of you not familiar with the impact that all of these exams can have on children, have a look at some of the exam-related posts at http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/
In the run up to my GCSEs, I’d been schooled into believing that a successful life was something along the lines of:
Born – nursery – good school – great college – top university – graduate job – promotions – marry – children – retire – die.
This mindset also meant that falling off said path condemned a person to a life of failure. It was only when I came close to screwing up A-Level maths that I woke up to smell the coffee. The year happened to be one after the tabloids had moaned about how easy A-Levels were. The A-Level maths exams were noticeably harder that year compared to the past papers, and is the only exam out of the many I did where I walked out thinking “I totally screwed that one up.” (Kids were coming out crying from that exam and rumours followed later that the failure rate went up by 10% for maths in that year – though I can’t be sure if that is true.) Every so often I still have nightmares about that exam.
It was only after I transferred down to London on the civil service fast-stream that this weight of expectation was thrown off. Having since left the civil service on the back of the huge cuts, I’m also of the mindset that I don’t have anything else to prove to “the system.” This is different to having drive. I want to use what I’ve learnt from being inside Whitehall for the benefit of wider society – hence this blog and my twitter account.
When responding to questions on message boards to students and young people about exams and careers, one of the things that regularly came up was parental expectations – expectations that had grades attached to it. It goes beyond academia – think of all those children who do music exams or dancing medals. Remember the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa Simpson begs everyone to “grade” her? To what extent do parents “compete” with each other through the exam results of their children?
At my old primary school’s summer fete not so long ago, the year 6 school children had put up a display on their thoughts and fears about the SATS exams they had to do – at the same time as preparing for secondary school. As if the stress of the latter wasn’t bad enough, their accounts of SATS exams were heart-breaking. For what benefit are we inflicting this sort of anguish on our 10 and 11 year olds? At the same time, a number will also be doing music exams too.
I ran away screaming from classical music after getting my grade 4 for the violin not long after my first year at secondary school. It took me almost 10 years before I was able to listen to classical music by choice due to the impact of having to play some of the most turgid music inflicted on humanity. My experience of music classes isn’t all bad though. When I moved to live in London, I found a college that taught group music classes at affordable prices – and who threw the exam book out of the window. This is the Mary Ward Centre. In 2006 I found a viola going for less than £100. I bought it in the hope of one day returning to it. A couple of years later I did, with the Mary Ward Centre. Their ethos and methods of teaching were completely different. Less of the “here is the piece that you’re going to learn because it’s on the syllabus” and more of a “here is a story behind a particular piece of music that we hope you’ll like.”
The sad thing funding wise is that many evening-class providers have had to cut back on their provision of courses, as well as increasing prices, in recent years. (See the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning). The Mary Ward Centre amongst many, has had to take big hits.
My questions from all of this?
- What impact is the culture of repeated exams having on children?
- Does that impact justify the data that organisations – e.g. governments or prospective employers – gain from those exam results?
- Why are we spending so much on exams? (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/apr/19/furthereducation.uk )
- What are the alternatives to the “Life on a piece of paper” mindset? (Are we writing too many people off too early?)