Exam-Centric Britain

January 28, 2013 6:00 pm

Travelling on a bus may not be the most pleasant experience, but it can certainly be intriguing. When two young girls, aged about ten and six, got on the bus with their mother, I prepared myself for annoying and squabbling children for the rest of my journey. Instead, I found myself sympathising with the girls.

student examWhen the younger one complained about not wanting to go to school that day, her mother launched into a lecture about the importance of qualifications, pointing out the people that she knew who had masters, PhDs and doctorate degrees and consequently had well-paid jobs. Being all for teaching the importance of a good education, I initially congratulated the mother (inwardly, of course). But then I reminded myself of the daughters’ ages – both were still clearly at primary school. It seemed ludicrous that their mother was ramming home the importance of exams and qualifications that were years off for the children. And that’s when it hit home just how exam-centric Britain is.

The sheer number of exams that students take, right from the very beginning of their education, is frightening. Over the past five years, my life has been shaped and punctuated by examination periods, sitting from as little as two exams to up to 20 within one academic year, and with more to come at university. It’s now a common belief that Britain’s youth are the ‘most tested’ in Europe. A survey done by Colin Richards, professor of education at St Martin’s College, Cumbria, in 2008 found that primary school children take more than 30 tests before they leave, with the brightest taking more than 40.The constant pressure from peer, family and teachers to work hard and succeed is immense, and sometimes takes the enjoyment of academic learning away. Education and qualifications are important – but at the cost of enjoying your childhood?

With Michael Gove, the education secretary, announcing radical changes to the examination system in England, it seems that our exam-centric country will not being going away any time soon. Gove plans to make A-level examinations more rigorous (I don’t know about any other A-level student, but surely A-levels are stressful enough without making them harder) and making them linear rather than modular. Exams will be taken at the end of the year and the AS exams will count as a separate qualification, rather than 50% of an A-level. All of which is to be implemented in 2015, along with a complete upheaval of GCSEs. It seems that instead of highlighting the skills and knowledge that A-levels and GCSEs / English Baccalaureates can give to students, Gove is once again placing the focus on exams.

michael gove

Politicians are, I think, too removed from the education system to realise just how emphasised exams are in this country. Looking back on my own education, there was rarely a moment when exams, whether externally assessed or not, did not feature on the horizon somewhere. Don’t get me wrong – some exams are necessary, but the focus needs to be on acquiring knowledge and skills rather than being exam-centric. There seems to be a culture of teaching students just enough knowledge to ‘get them through their exams’ as opposed to teaching life-long skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics. It’s a shame that people are rarely interested in learning for pleasure any more, with creating exam factories instead becoming the norm.

So the next time that a child complains about not wanting to go to school, just remember that they have many exam-filled years ahead of them. It won’t be long before they’re stressing and worrying about on-coming examinations and what the results of them will mean for their future. Let them enjoy their childhood while they can.

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