Drowning in Exams

The Drowning June 2015
(c) David Parfitt June 2015

Drowning in Exams
I scribed for a lovely, vulnerable student in our recent English GCSE exam. Oh the irony, as my handwriting can be challenging and I was worried that under the new, rigorous exam edicts the student could be penalised for my poor handwriting. At the end of the difficult two hour exam, I was shattered and I could only hope that I’d done a good job for this lovely boy. The next day, he was undertaking four GCSE exams in one day: two German, computing, and finally, a difficult and lengthy geography exam. What madness! A stifling hot day’s judgement under exam conditions. An assessment of his endurance, not his learning; a poor reflection of his skills after eleven years of education. On the day of the maths exam, three statemented children undertook three GCSE exams; six hours in total for boys whose statement was for learning difficulties. The last exam resistant materials they could have passed but two fell asleep! This is tantamount to child cruelty and shows no empathy with children’s needs. In my lifetime, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had 20+ jobs in and out of education. I have learned many skills yet never has a test improved my performance, or crucially, tested what I have learned but instead only what I have remembered. The oft used analogy that you don’t “fatten a pig by weighing it” is often used about our exam-factory system that is comically known as education. However, I prefer John Holt, the American proponent of home schooling whose reflection that “overzealous testing was like a gardener digging up their plants daily to see how well they are forming”. This is a more accurate analysis of the current testing madness; a system that is providing silly profit for exam boards and little education.
The current government hide behind traditional rhetoric underpinned by language such as “rigour”, “standards” and “discipline.” This is their excuse for taking us back to the education of the public school elite that is defined by a test at the end of their schooling. Where next – the return of fagging and the cane? This is an unrealistic system and is unlikely to meet the needs of a significant portion of the majority of secondary school populations. To the non-academic students, the GCSE fortnight is a miserable period in their lives. It leaves them feeling like failures and is not an appropriate way of assessing whether they have progressed. Crucially, I do not think that the current system of rote learning, followed by intense testing, adequately prepares students for working life in modern Britain. The annual concern of business leaders is that young people “lack the basic skills, the basic attributes at work”.  One in three business leaders is concerned about youngsters’ poor attitude to work which is not something you can test in an exam, but something you can educate over a period of time. Surely this is the role of the modern teacher and I would suggest is a key requirement of schools in 2015.

Therefore, it is deeply depressing that David Cameron will adhere to his election pledge to make the English Baccalaureate compulsory for all students; backed by his now non-independent attack dog “Ofsted” who will be unable to award schools the highest rating if they refuse to teach these traditional exam heavy core subjects. Furthermore, the proposed removal of practicals from the science A-level assessment – the fun part of science – means our students will be tested and tested with the likelihood being that British students will have to deal with unprecedented pressure as they are examined more frequently at a younger age and in more subjects than children from any other country, a Cambridge University two year enquiry has found. Unsurprisingly, the government rejected this criticism, “the idea that children are tested too frequently is not a view that the government accepts”. This quotation is from the usual, anonymous government spokesperson. Cynically, I feel that the government’s needs are suited by this limited traditional curriculum as it is based in the private education system where the majority of MPs were educated and which they understand. Furthermore, it is easier to judge and inspect than a more vocational, subjective based curriculum.
My worry is for all those students whose aptitude is in the creative arts. Where are the talented musicians, artists or sportsmen going to come from, especially as these areas would have appeared to have been downgraded in our schools? In introducing the iPad, Steve Jobs correctly stated that “technology alone is not enough. It is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yield us the results that make our hearts sing.” Schools have to be so much more than the current exam factory. I do not remember many maths lessons but I do remember my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, rugby matches and my attempt to play in the school orchestra. A balance is what is always required and four examinations in a day is never going to produce a correct assessment, a correct result, a correct Ofsted judgement, or perhaps most importantly, a lifelong love of learning!

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