If there was one thing you could change to improve education in your country…

By Julia Stevens. Julia is a retired sixth form teacher. She lives in London, United Kingdom

Not everyone can be top!

Those who excel at exams and tests in secondary school can be rightly proud of their achievements but where does that leave those who are not in the top 5% of the class? The effect of the current emphasis on assessment has led to the majority of students “failing” in the eyes of schools, universities, employers, society and, often, even parents! We fall below expectations and, as a consequence, brand ourselves as public failures from a very young age. So, if there’s one thing I would change to improve education in the UK, it would be to get rid of exams as we know them.

No-one is satisfied with being average. Even in selective schools where all students are above average, half the students fall below average (you can tell I learned some maths at school!). When we are young, we live in a small world and just compare ourselves with those in our immediate surroundings – not taking in the wider picture. The press and the government seem to be obsessed with league tables of schools based on students passing national exams, to such an extent that the poor individual student is ignored in the quest for the top slot and in the process unintentionally rubbishing those who do not achieve these coveted top grades. This early public judgement, continuing throughout our most impressionable years, (adolescents being notoriously sensitive to their self-image), causes us to have feelings of low self-worth way beyond school, and we either give up trying or if we’re lucky are able to turn to other activities that make us feel proud of ourselves.

At present we have a system where, sometimes several times a year, children are forced to queue outside the school gym or hall and then file in in silence, clutching see-through plastic pencil cases in their sweaty hands, and sit at a flimsy table for up to 2 hours in an adrenalin-filled environment staring at the back of another student and write until they feel their hands are dropping off, or slump onto the desk in hopeless despair. All the while teachers patrol up and down and the hapless children watch the second hand of the clock. This is generally preceded in the previous week or so by intense pressure from teachers and parents, and, most pernicious of all, the very high targets set by the students themselves! The time spent answering exam questions is said to measure just up to 10% of what is covered by the school curriculum, a pretty poor return I would say. Students do need to be assessed so that teachers can monitor progress and intellectual development and intervention given where necessary, but they should not be judged on the basis of written answers given to random questions under pressure of time that does not allow for measured judgements and accurate answers.

I am not suggesting for one moment that there should be no assessment of academic achievement. On the contrary, we need to know what level of education our future work force has reached in order to maintain a healthy economy and good living standards for us all. People who are gifted academically need to be nurtured by society and select employment that best suits their abilities and allows personal growth. But this applies to everyone and we should not damage the mental health of our young people by such draconian measures as the current examination structure. Be under no illusion that students are unaware of the importance of the few hours spent sweating over a hot exam paper. They are acutely aware of the need to do well at school. I would contend that “success” in exams has been blown out of all proportion. In my experience it is rare for adults to be asked how they did at school or university once they have been out in the big wide world for a few years.

So what’s the answer? Maybe students should be offered a choice so that if they don’t want to sit exams they can be assessed after each unit of the curriculum to check understanding and practical ability. Surely, demonstration of skills, comprehension and absorption of knowledge is what we should be aiming at? Obviously, this may not suit all students – there is some evidence that boys perform better under the “sudden death” system where an exam is given at the end of a course – and therefore, all students should be given the opportunity to sit exams. They may be a spur for some students who enjoy writing at speed and the challenge of being asked questions where they can show off their skill, flair and imagination in their answers. Other students who do not find this way of testing helpful could avoid this ordeal in favour of working steadily over the whole course and achieving marks for the work as they do it. The best mark that students get – either from the assessments or the exams would be counted. At the end of their time at school students will gain a statement of what they have achieved. For those needing scores for employment or entry into higher education, the best marks from either the continual assessment or the examinations will be made available.

We should be aiming for the success of the majority rather than the few. The small percentage of students who get excellent scores in academic exams and tests should be encouraged and praised, however, we also need to devote attention to most students who do not do as “well”. At present, these people are left with the feeling that they are failing and school work being judged as unpleasant and to be avoided. This attitude engenders feelings of low self-worth and an avoidance of any further learning. No society should educate their young people by underlining their inadequacy at school work, but should encourage them to seek answers for themselves and enjoy learning about new things. They say that if you want to kill an interest in something then teach it at school!

The important thing here is that all of us should be enabled to lead fulfilling lives, enjoying positive mental health, and accepting our responsibilities towards others whilst enjoying the rest of our lives post school, and even getting a kick out of learning about new things and exploring different ideas. Secondary school, even if followed by a degree course, lasts for about ten years. By my calculations, here in the UK, that only covers a small part of one’s adult life-span! The rest of our lives should be a time of personal growth and development involving continuous learning and at the same time as enjoying family and work life before retiring and offering the benefit of what we have learned to others.

In short, let’s stop the blight of exams causing undue pressure and stress and allow our kids to enjoy life and, more importantly, succeed regardless of some arbitrary scores gained during a very brief period of their lives. This would undoubtedly improve education and give our young people a really good chance to live happily, enjoying positive mental health, with a more realistic view of what is really important about life!

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