Education, education education? Or just “Exam Factories”…?

So today Michael Gove has announced to Parliament that he wants to reform the education system, possibly to replace GCSE’s with something “O-Level like”.

Only a full day after the news was leaked to the Daily Mail, and all major policy changes should be declared to the House of Commons first, but we’ll brush over that point…for now!

For many years we’ve heard how GCSE’s are supposedly getting easier, on the basis of the evidence that the pass rate has increased year-on-year for the past 20-odd years.

Statisticians would tell you that you can’t suggest a causal link (that action A must have led to outcome B) based simply on observational evidence, but I think the issue goes deeper than this. Many people have their own perception of young people, often incorrect and based on anecdotal evidence from the news or friends, and believe youngsters must be getting dimmer, or at the very least not getting more intelligent, based on random facts such as many youngsters supposedly not knowing who is atop Nelson’s column or what a conjunctive is. So the popular perception, certainly from the arguments I have, is that “Education isn’t like it was in my day, youngsters don’t know as much about XYZ…”

I’m sorry, this is the youngsters’ fault how??

From my experience, especially watching friends of mine do GCSEs recently plus memories of my own experience, schools are not institutions of learning any more. They are becoming nothing more than “Exam Factories”, churning the prescriptive knowledge into young people’s’ minds and ignoring anything irrelevant.

I remember being at university having debates in seminars that regularly ran “off-topic” for what was intended for that specific seminar. However it raised relevant points and the lecturers let the debates continue, letting the issues raised become the teaching points. I remember in a law seminar one lecturer and I using a Star Trek episode as the basis to argue about euthanasia in a seminar that was supposed to be about human rights, but it allowed us to explore the issues of morality versus the law and how there’s sometimes a disconnect between the two.

In schools this appears to be actively discouraged, in favour of focussing purely on what might come up in the exam, which thanks to the National Curriculum and the guidance from exam boards usually leaves teachers with a good ability to anticipate what might come up. Wider knowledge is being sacrificed at the altar of “Good grades” and “League Tables”.

And politicians wonder why school leavers sometimes lack the skills and knowledge for the workplace.

The issues are deeper than this, too, as moves are being made to move back to exams rather than coursework. Brilliant, if your mind is wired up for being able to regurgitate knowledge and convey it in an eloquent and descriptive manner that an exam marker is looking for. But if your mind is wired up more for building, say, or can’t find the prose to communicate an idea succinctly enough, you’re going to struggle.

For me, thousands of young people are frustrated by a system where academic knowledge is prized above skills such as engineering, woodwork, or physical abilities. If your mind is genuinely not designed to cope with essays and adverbs and algebra, but is for being able to aim and shoot a sniper without shaking your hands over half a mile, why should Michael Gove et al call you a failure?

Education reform for me needs to encompass three broad areas:

  1. Get rid of “exam factories” and let teachers teach again. I think an independent board of experts in each subject should come up with what knowledge & skills school leavers should be able to show and how most appropriately they can demonstrate that knowledge. For languages this may be through spoken and written assessments, for history it might be analysis of sources and suggest which sources give the best evidence of a historical event, for science it may be a practical experiment done in exam conditions.
  2. Remove the link between “Exam results” and “ability of the school”. Schools should be judged by reputation and Ofsted inspections, not with how many A* students they churn out. Every school has to face the problems and challenges unique to it’s community and might need to focus on different subjects and skill-sets accordingly.
  3. Replacing exams for practical equivalents for those people not academically minded. This is already done for Art GCSEs, where youngsters have two days to create a piece of art within XYZ guidelines, or in Drama where a piece is created over some weeks and then performed to an assessor. Expand the subjects this can apply to, for sport, woodwork (or Resistant Materials as I believe it’s called these days), other similar skills. Maybe thinks like apprenticeships, such as students working with plumbers for a few months, can be used to assess engineering abilities and application of logic, problem solving, etc.

Working with children myself but not being a teacher, you know how to get the best out of your students and help them gain to where they can reach their potential. The crime here is the system appears to be heading in a direction of letting the academically brightest succeed, to the detriment of those whose skills and abilities can so easily be adapted to help society but not given the chance, encouragement or ability to shine.

It’s no surprise that so many young people are disenfranchised with society!

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