Much as everyone else has been saying, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I had exams and I was revising. Well, they’re done now, and more to the point, they may very well have been the last exams that I will ever have to do, ever again. That’s not insignificant. As I’m sure most of you are well aware, our education system is absolutely obsessed with exams. I’ve been taking them every year, without fail, since I was 12 years old. I’m now 23. Not only does that mean that I haven’t had a relaxing Easter holiday for 11 years, but it also must stand to reason that I have a lot of qualifications under my belt. Well, yes and no.
My exams at 12/13/14 were really just in-school formalities. They determined what class I got into the next year. Of course, they didn’t tell us that, so we worked as if they were important. Damn. Then 15 and 16 were GCSE’s, and they seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. You were going up against everyone else your age in the country. Tough. But then I found out when I was 17 and 18 that A-Levels were worse. Hell, my future depended on these ones apparently. Well, when that future came true, I went to uni and the exams of 19, 20, 21 and 22 got me a BSc. They said that was all the education I’d need for the rest of my life. I was done. Well, perhaps they were right, but I decided that I knew better, hence 23 sees me half way to an MSc, hopefully.
So yes, I do have a lot of qualifications. But is there anything you notice about this, apart from the sheer repetitiveness of the process? Every year trumps/cancels out the year before. Once you have GCSE’s, none of the exams you’ve done before matter. A-Levels then render these meaningless, but then even they become redundant too when you get a BSc/BA. You probably get what happens when I graduate from Imperial. So actually, I only have one qualification that matters: my BSc, soon to be my MSc.
Now, I recognise that it would very difficult (impossible?) to base a system of education around anything other than exams. You need some way of gauging ability, some way of making sure people meet the benchmarks. We all have to jump through the hoops to show that we’ve got the nous to get an A*/A/1st or whatever, and employers need these grades to effectively differentiate between candidates. That’s fine. It also makes sense that you have to pass GCSE’s before you are allowed to go onto A-Levels etc. It would be silly otherwise. But my problem with this ladder-climbing system of education is that it doesn’t really seem to be about education: it’s about being able to say that British children are well educated because they’ve passed the exams.
I’ve had the privilege of being taught by some excellent teachers, especially during my A-Levels, but, no matter their quality, they ultimately had to teach me to pass exams. By placing the emphasis of the education system on ‘getting the grades’ it’s not surprising that virtually all of the homework I was set from 15-18 was based around past exam papers. I was thoroughly indoctrinated into the exam paradigm. It therefore follows that, although I’ve learnt a few things along the way, first and foremost what I’m qualified to do is pass exams. I’ve taken a lot of them, but I’m damned if I can tell you much of what I learnt for my History GCSE. I’d actually be quite surprised if I could tell you much of what I learnt for my exams on Monday and Tuesday. What I can tell you how to do though is answer a ‘compare and contrast’ question properly, or what sort of answer to give when the question has ‘discuss’ in it. How handy.
What this leads me to suspect is that teaching for exams isn’t actually a very good way of educating people. It not only encourages people to limit their learning to what they ‘need to know’ and then cram it all into their heads in the weeks before the big day, but it also actually takes the fun out of it. Knowing why things work the way they do, or why we live in a country that functions the way it does, or even knowing the opening sentense of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice can actually be remarkably satisfying, but it isn’t if you know you’re only learning it to get another of those all-important marks from the examiner. In my opinion, and I do recognise that this is horrifically idealistic, education should be about encouraging and nurturing curiosity, not stifling it with prescriptive pronouncements from Whitehall about what we all need to know and how it should be taught. I recognise that the role of education is really to get people ready to live in the world as finctional human beings, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could also incorporate into that a genuine appreciation for and equality in knowledge?
But it’s not just the intellectual satisfaction that exams take out of education, though: it’s the bredth. As I said above, as you go up the ladder the qualifications you earnt on the previous rungs becomes redundant, but what comes with this in our system is a relentless and early specialisation. Right from the time you choose your GCSE’s you’re on a long road that may only end nearly 7 or 8 maybe even 10 years later with a BA/BSc/MA/MSc/Phd. Your GCSE choices narrow down what A-Levels you can do and these then, in turn, determine what Degree you can get. Now, call me melodramatic if you want, but I reckon that 14 is FAR too young to be making such important choices. There is no way of getting around it: these choices limit what you do in the future and I speak as one who has made mistakes in these choices to my great regret.
Fortunately many careers allow entrants from almost any background, so if you’re a career-minded sort then there is no inherent problem here. As long as you get something, you can get that job in advertising or marketing or whatever. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what happens in the education system as long as you pass though it. A genuine if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it argument. But I reckon that it is ‘broke’: I like to think that life is about more than just money and work. Yes these are important, some may even say fundamental, but I like to think that knowing things outside of what is immediately relevant to my career is a good thing. You may disagree.
So what’s been the point of all this? I’m not sure to be honest… Since I was 12 I’ve been faithfully jumping over all the hurdles laid out in front of me and I’m now running down the finishing straight, but, as this rather hackneyed metaphor is telling you, I’m now quite tired. Jaded even. And you can probably tell that it’s made me a little cynical too: I’m really rather confused as to the point of running the race in the first place. What I can tell you, though, is that I now owe the government just over £20,000 for the privilege of calling myself degree-level educated. Great. Even better, because of their misguided economic and educational policies, I owe the government all this money (which is fast accruing interest thanks to them raising the interest on student loans) at precisely the time when the job market has imploded and I will be one of tens of thousands of unemployed graduates. Fantastic.
In my opinion, then, it would be much better to take the emphasis off exams, decrease the amount of inherent specialisation in the system, and to make the whole thing a good deal more intereting. How this would be enacted on a policy-level, I have no clue. What I will say, though, partially to acknowledge the irony of writing this on the website of an educational institution, but also to acknowledge my gradtitude towards them, Imperial (and UCL and Cambridge) have all done a great deal to help me shake off the failings of the system I’ve been harping on about. At institutions like these, knowledge rules, and that’s good. There are still exams, and they’re still unpleasant, but at least you get credit for knowing things outside of the syllabus. All I’d say to those of you planning on coming here, make sure you apply for the right thing and make sure you love it: jumping through degree-sized hoops without enthusiam must be rubbish.