Exams vs Education

By | 31 January 2008

Secondary teachers probably despaired at the news that universities believed undergraduates are reaching them unfit for degree courses, and needing foundation years to get up to speed.
University staff apparently believe schools are spoon-feeding to ensure children pass examinations. And they’re right – that’s what government wanted.
In fact, what else did anyone expect when the world started to judge schools by the pass rates in public examinations?
Only now have the universities woken up to protest that, without old-style education, undergraduates are not what they used to be – not sufficiently inquiring, not so capable of independent study and more demanding of more spoon-feeding and direct teaching than any researching, book-writing lecturer likes.
Tough. Live with it. In the end, schools can only deliver what the boss wants.

The trouble is that when any boss demands something on pain of the sack, workers will do anything they can to provide it. Jobs and lives depend upon success. Exam passes do not constitute education, but the government says they do.So – you want five GCSE passes? Let’s see which subjects pupils in our school have an outside chance of passing. The year GCSEs were introduced, the large comprehensive in which I worked introduced media studies for students who hated English literature. They could pass media studies – and they did.
I thought it was quite legitimate – early personalised learning, since we were catering for students’ enthusiasm, which they never had for Jane Eyre. And actually, the course – the detailed analysis of soap opera structure – was just as tough in its own way.
Personally, I had grave doubts about an ICT course which gave a student four GCSE passes just like that! – but who am I to argue with a school which considered its pupils and went for it, shot up the league tables, and won awards for its head who had the balls to devise a way for his pupils to satisfy the government edict about five passes.
As a teacher, I had grave doubts about the amount of information examination boards produced about how to get good grades, especially at A level. I rather liked the old days, when they asked things like, “how far would you agree that Chaucer fails to arouse pathos in The Clerk’s Tale?” (AEB English Paper 1 NEC Syllabus, November 1972), and you had very little idea how they would be marked, and teacher and candidates crossed their fingers a lot.
But these days there is such scrutiny of examinations – all those appeals! Jobs and lives depend upon success. Teachers are given detailed outlines of That Which Must Be Known before the candidates go near the exam room. There is neither scope nor motive for independence of anything – not teaching, discussion, study or thought.
And where there might be, in coursework, teachers have descended, unsurprisingly, into limiting the range so that the material can still be taught, not explored independently. In the olden days of early GCSE, there was such a thing as English and English literature syllabi that were 100 per cent coursework. A class of 30 would produce about 900 pieces of coursework from which the final 300 would be chosen, just for Eng language. I know – I marked them.
No wonder teachers started saying: “Let’s all do the same 10, okay? Now, what you do for this one is…” (And note that even this reduction produced 150,000 words to be marked) Then they reduced the coursework to mini-proportions anyway, and teachers said: “Let’s do the same book, the same essay on the same character, and it goes like this. And I will correct it until it is completely sanitised and indistinguishable from anyone else’s and you will be sick of the sight of it.”
What did we lose? Individuality and independence of thought. It used to be called education.
What did we gain? More children got taught to pass exams. Exactly what the government wanted. And parents, heads and children – just look at the pictures on results days, and the knighthoods for heads who make it happen.
Universities, it seems, do not want it, maybe because they will have to work harder where secondary teachers left off – actually teaching, rather than reading aloud notes written a few years back and flogging their own textbook to those who are able to read the whole thing for themselves. And, of course, charging for it.
Welcome to the 21st century. 
• Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, and media studies for three. She is currently the national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, but writes here in a personal capacity

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