Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Never Let Me Go(ve)

By now you will have seen the news that the Government is mucking about with education again. The latest brainwave comes from idiot twerp Michael Gove, who is:
  • hilariously out of his depth as a Cabinet minister 
  • scarily thick
  • in a very influential position 
So that's pretty damn scary.

Gove's latest idea is to axe the oft-criticised GCSE and overhaul school testing. In a few years time, rolling assessments will be gone, and a heavy emphasis will be placed on your "traditional" end of year examination. There will be only one exam board, and, according to the BBC, pupils will be 'assessed entirely by an external exam, with proposals for an end to all internal assessment.' In basic language - no more coursework.

So what do I think about all this? Not a lot, quite frankly, although I'm prepared to concede that only having the one exam board for a subject isn't the worst idea in the world. Is there a "race to the bottom" under the current system, with various exam boards competing against each other and chucking out easier test papers? Possibly. Not for me to say, really, but regardless, I think for simplicity's sake just the one exam board is possibly a wise idea. But what about the exams themselves?

Because Gove's problem with GCSEs seems to be all about grade inflation - that the humble GCSE is nowhere near as difficult as the O-Levels he had to endure in his youth. I can imagine this is the case. In my hand right now is my father's O-Level mathematics book that he used when he was 16. I've spent the last 15 minutes trying to find a question in it that I can answer (correctly), and I can't find one. In some places, I have an excuse - the money questions are in shillings(?!), I don't have any algorithms on me, I've forgotten what words like "factorise" mean - but mainly I just can't blooming do it. And I have a B in GCSE Maths, I'm obviously super smart.

So if Michael Gove wants to tell me that exams have got easier over the years, then fine - he can. But for me the slipping in standards of exam papers isn't a reason to tear up the whole structure currently in place and start again, particularly in regards to destroying the notion of coursework. I don't think exams are necessarily bad things, but placing the entire weight of a subject on one exam is a bad thing, because you simply don't know how people will react. There was a girl in my year at college who was extraordinarily smart - far smarter than I was or ever will be - but continually she struggled with exam papers and never got the hang of them. She didn't get the marks she really could/should have got in them, for whatever reason, but at least she was able to fall back on her coursework, which was always magnificent. In short, we know that students learn in different ways, so to me it makes sense to draw out that learning in different ways too. Exams are stressful, which is why they reward those who work best under extreme pressure. It would be unfair to penalise those who don't in such an extreme way.

I hated exams when I was at school - who didn't? - so I've tried to block out the memories of them, but what I do recall, particularly in my favoured subject of English, is how the exam always went one of two ways. Either:

1) We opened the exam paper to find that it was indeed the question our teacher had predicted it was going to be, so the entire class sat there like automated drones writing the exact same key themes, quotes, points because our "learning" had been crushed and we were just regurgitating the stuff we needed to know to pass the exam.


2) We opened the exam paper to find that the question wasn't one we had been anticipating, at which point we all went "SHIT!", looked at each other, panicked, then began to scribble as much bollocks as we could.

Creativity and critical thought? Maybe a little in scenario 2, but it was frantic and far from our best work. Enjoyment? Nowt from either. Reflection? Again, maybe a little in scenario 2 but no time for it to be anything deep or meaningful. Pressure? Extreme in both scenarios. In the future, even if the heart rate is a bit slower in scenario 1, students still know that this is now their only shot, the long process of independent thought and creative thinking they enjoyed via coursework now stripped away.

So what's the answer? It's difficult to say - everything seems to have its pros and cons, and there is no perfect system. Rolling assessments makes the student feel like they are constantly being tested/evaluated/analysed and under constant stress. Coursework can be conducted without integrity and open to abuse. A block of exams at the end of the year is an absolute nightmare, an experience I'm so glad I won't have to go through ever again.

Maybe it's time for a new way. Something fresh and innovative, a method which strips away all the "You won't need to know this in the future but you need to know it just to pass this exam" bollocks. A revolutionary, exciting and inspiring new way of education, which will fill the students with enthusiasm and joy. A way which stimulates creativity, and passion, and critical analysis, a way that leaves our education system admired around the world for its originality and enterprise.

A way which, deep down, we know we'll never see under Michael Gove and the Conservatives.

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