Life on a piece of paper

“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

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?

  1. What impact is the culture of repeated exams having on children?
  2. Does that impact justify the data that organisations – e.g. governments or prospective employers – gain from those exam results?
  3. Why are we spending so much on exams? (See )
  4. What are the alternatives to the “Life on a piece of paper” mindset? (Are we writing too many people off too early?)
Surely as a society we can do better than “Life on a piece of paper”

16 thoughts on “Life on a piece of paper

  1. As someone who came up just a year ahead of the rolling introduction of the National Curriculum, I don’t have first-hand experience of the SATs culture, but what worries me is that conveyor belt of childhood -> adolescence -> early adulthood is becoming the *only* opportunity to get that piece of paper (at the same time as more and more jobs that mainly depend on transferable skills require one specific piece of paper or another). If you made a choice that didn’t suit you at any point on the way up, it’s too late, unless you can find the equivalent of the deposit on a house to fund the process of starting again from where you should have branched off the first time (or of going back and following a branch that didn’t exist the first time – isn’t the green-collar economy meant to come along and sweep up all of us whose occupations have become outdated?) The individual bears the whole of the risk, as with pretty much everything else…

    I *do* know that the point when I really began to grow into the subject I ended up taking through to university was in those weeks at the end of year 12 when we’d finished our quite-relaxed-by-comparison internal exams and could canter along exploring some of the implications of our topics that weren’t really on the syllabus. No chance of that now, and I’m sure A-level teaching and learning is the poorer for it.

  2. You start at pre-school , are identified as a ‘bright little button’, expectations of further success when you reach junior and then senior school. You are cajoled and coaxed into achieving the very best…..but for who…the teacher or the student?
    You leave school, go to college and then university…….but bright and in debt is no guarantee of a job. Then you’re forty and wondering just what its all about! A tiny percentage make it to the the ultimate career…and many others don’t use the gifts they have, gifts that are considered too “soft” an option. Wheres the individual meant to go? Who cares?

  3. Thank you for a great post and consistently informative and enganging Twitter feed. I take on board your concerns about exam culture, but surely the context for the significance of exams is determined by parents, not the government or education authorities (while teachers toil do their best to reconcile the demands of all three). There needs to be some reasonable form of yardstick for academic achievement and yearly exams seem to meet this. It is for parents to put it into perspective and apply emphasis in the context of what the child can reasonably be expected to achieve. “Pressure” should really not be a word that is associated with academic achievement. This seems to me to be a matter of common sense. An increasingly rare commodity perhaps.

  4. I work in a couple of schools which have adopted an accelerated curriculum and extensive external examinations. Along with this goes huge pressure on the children (and the teachers) to deliver very high grades. At one school children are advised, when choosing options, ” if you can’t get an A* don’t bother to do the subject” – even if it’s their favourite subject. I’ve never seen such stressed kids in my life. Other schools, which haven’t adopted such high-pressure programmes, have a wider range of extra-curricular activities such as sport and music, and their results aren’t any worse. I really don’t know what these high-pressure schools hope to achieve by making children’s lives miserable and limiting their options only to those in which they are certain of high grades.

    My own programme of exams as a peripatetic teacher is entirely voluntary: no-one has to do singing exams, and in one case I actually stopped a child doing exams because she was asking me the grade of every piece of music I gave her. I have a number of students who don’t do exams because their singing lessons are light relief from the exam-driven, pressured environment they work in. There are a rather larger number of students who give up singing, and other “optional” activities, because their time is fully occupied with public examination work.

    Where has the pleasure in study gone? Whatever happened to a broad education and the development of a rounded personality? Exams really aren’t everything. In twenty years’ time, no employer will give a stuff what GCSE grades these kids got. But employers will want to know that they are interesting people. If all their individuality is knocked out of them in the interests of getting top grades, I wonder if they will be.

  5. Excellent post.
    I have three children, two at Secondary and one in the middle of Primary in UK state schools, and I have wept many, many times that this is the education my children are getting: a narrow, exam-based, results driven system that rarely, if ever, encourages them to ask WHY. To feel the excitement of learning. To explore and learn outside the constraining syllabus, which only suits some pupils.
    I went to the European School in Oxford and took the European Baccalaureat, which requires its students to take ELEVEN subjects right up to the final year: I took maths, three sciences, German, Philosophy, Latin, History and Geography (taught in a foreign langage), English and PE. All of the subjects contributed to the final result, which is what Universities based their offer on. This made it a very tough system, but one that allowed pupils to leave school still interested in MANY things and with a very broad education.
    Due to the presence of some excellent teachers we were always encouraged to ask why, and to connect our subjects to one another – so maths could spill into History, Physics could be related to Latin, or Philosophy. Subjects weren’t just taught in order to tick boxes and ensure the school’s track record remained high – they were taught by asking children what THEY think. How they would work it out. What the POINT of it was.
    And the results were extremely impressive, not just academically, but also in terms of PEOPLE, and what they can bring to the world.
    Of course we all understand the pressures under teachers to teach under incredibly stressful circumstance, with class sizes that are far, far too big to manage, a range of abilities that makes giving each child what they need impossible and constant pressure to get RESULTS.
    But I would LOVE to see a system where many more subjects are taught right up to the final years, and where there is some LINK between them. Where my children might leave school thinking, “There are HUNDREDS of doors open to me. Now….which one shall I open and explore behind first?” instead of “Shiiiiiit, I have to succeed, succeed, succeed at something…..or I’ll have failed.”

  6. The reliance on exam results also diminishes the value of experience. I was filling in an application for Step up To Social work ( yes I am that desperate for a job after a year of unemployment thanks to government cuts), but you have to have a 2.1. Well my degree is a 2.2 ( too much beer and student politics) but on top of that I have 30 years solid experience in the work place at senior levels, have raised three kids on my own for the last 10 years and I am an active school governor. A lot to bring to social work you would think,.But social work will never benefit from my wisdom because that 2.1 is absolute prerequisite and you can’t fill in the rest of the form if you can’t tick that box.

    I worry about my daughters because the pressure is relentless. The E Bacc makes it worse and removes choice. I can’t agree with Michael Gove that he isn’t forcing people to choose these subjects; schools are already limiting their offers to young people. I am concerned that my lovely bright, intellecutally curious daughters will be forced to do subjects which don’t really interest them for the sake of the Head’s reputation and Michael Gove’s memories of his school days.

  7. Great idea – only way to get through to young people these days 🙂 it’s amazing how many of the young people I have worked with still connect with me on Facebook and have more recently begun to on twitter. I applaud what you are trying to do – more of us adults, particularly those in the professions should be doing so!

    I agree with you on exams too – whilst I remember doing internal school exams at the end of every year, they were not the same as doing the official ones – and even the official ones did not seem as frightening as I know they are for young people today.

    I encourage all exam invigilators to smile occasionally at nervous students – not scare them to death. Perhaps having strangers do the invigilation makes it worse – having a friendly well known face watching and encouraging must be better than strangers. I refer to Sats, GCSEs and equivalent here, by A level I think they are better able to cope having got past puberty and hormonal disruptions!

  8. I’m one of those odd people who adored exams. Really really loved them. However, I am well aware I’m odd!

    I’ve always supported the learning styles method of teaching, as per RSA Animate Changing Education Paradigms

    This would ultimately allow anomalies like myself with in demi-eidetic memory to do what we wanted, and for others to learn as best benefited themselves.

    The proposals in the Free School system would allow for this, were an academy to pursue such an approach, but the lack of direction towards this study means that so-called traditional forms of study will maintain precedence as they allow the government to benchmark. For some reason, we have a need in Britain to compare and contrast with other nations, and a fruitless ambition that smarts of an empire fallen from grace.

    I’m on a Cicero thing at the moment, and this is perfect;

    “Rational ability without education has oftener raised man to glory and virtue, than education without natural ability.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

  9. I ‘buddied’ a young dad during a period of unemployment he experienced. He had a two degrees, one in History, the other in Politics. The prison service would not consider his applicatio because he hadn’t sat his O’Level in English, and therefore they were not satisfied that his reading and writing skills were adequate for the job. They suggested he go back to school for a year.

    Tesco, insisted he take a reading and basic numeracy skills test before they would consider him for the vacancy of shelf-filler.

    He left the country.
    World gone mad?

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