That seems to be a common thought around my house as my kids fight for space to revise for their next set of exams. They’ve been doing exams their whole lives, it seems, and right now we are knee deep in AS level revision. I mean that literally – there are piles of files across the floor of my office, stuffed full of notes on the conflict between Austria and Prussia, and whether Frankenstein is a gothic novel. There hasn’t been a single term when my kids have been free of exams since they have been at primary school – endless tests, checking their ability to learn to a curriculum.
My daughter and her friends are now experts in the techniques of passing exams. They will look at a mark scheme on a paper and immediately think ‘4 marks – I must make 4 points’. Not a well argued 3, or additional flavour with an extra number five – no, the answers get cut. You do exactly as much as you need, no more. You need no independent thought to get the marks, just a regurgitation of the facts and arguments as they have been presented to you.
And they practice and practice and practice, doing endless past papers, so much so that she can’t possibly have any AS level maths papers left to try.
It all strikes me as a waste of time. All we are doing is pitching kids against each other in the arena of the Edexcel paper – The Hunger Games in two dimensions – and the winners take the coveted A*s and the places at the top universities. There is no space in the timetable to wander off topic and explore something which might be interesting, so it’s harder and harder to find the time you need to learn to love your subject. And if you don’t love your subject, how can you tell that you want to study it further at A level or for a degree?
In the real world there isn’t a mark scheme – you need to organise your facts and make the best argument you can for whatever it is you are doing. You need your own opinions and you need to be able to defend those opinions, and you also need to be able to tell when it’s best to keep those opinions to yourself. I worry that our education system and the exams which you might be sitting in the next few weeks and months really aren’t helping you to prepare for anything useful. The only consolation is that everyone is in the same boat.
Do you like sitting exams? I know that some people do. What other ways can you think of to prove that you have learned enough to leave school?