Sunday, 10 June 2007

Heads Examined?

Long ago, in an education system lost in the mists time, there was once a qualification called an O'Level - short for Ordinary Level.

Let's think about the word "ordinary" for a moment. According to the dictionary, it is an adjective meaning commonly encountered, or usual. Quite a fitting description for the standard qualifications once achieved by most 16 years old school leavers, don't you think?

The O'Level qualification was phased out in 1986, to be replaced by the current CGSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). I left school in 1986, and was amongst the last batch of O'Level students. After leaving school I wanted to study several subjects that had been unavailable to me in the school timetable, either due to conflicts with other, equally interesting subjects, or because they had simply not been part of the school curriculum.

So, a couple of years after leaving school, I signed on to my local night school and sat several of the new-fangled GCSEs. Imagine my surprise when, after one academic year of study (i.e. September to June) consisting of one, three hour class per subject per week, I achieved three GCSE grades that were equivalent to, or better than, the O'Level grades I had gained after five years of secondary school education.

Of course, at this point, some smart-alec is bound to say something like "Ahh, but at school you were studying 9 subjects, while you only took 3 at night school." Wrong. I only took 3 GCSEs at night school, this is true. But I also took 2 A'Levels at the same time. Either I had become significantly smarter in the years since I left school (unlikely!) or the GCSEs were a lot easier than O'Levels had ever been.

Every year, round about GCSE result time, the debate rages over whether or not standards of education are falling, and the GCSE is just a hideously dumbed down substitute for a proper qualification. Based on my experience, there can be no doubt about it; GCSEs are unquestionably much, much easier.

Despite this blatant betrayal of our young people's education, it seems that the General Teaching Council is fretting about levels of stress in kids studying for GCSEs. Apparently, exams are stressful occasions for the little mites, and the system of testing at 7, 11 and 14 years old should be abolished.

What a load of cobblers. When I was at secondary school, we did exams in every subject twice a year - once before Christmas, and once at the end of the summer term - starting in the first year. Sure, in the first year, this was a new experience and therefore a little stressful. But by the time we came to sit real, meaningful O'Level exams at the end of the fifth year, we were all fully accustomed to exam procedure.

The ritual of filing into the exam room and waiting until the allotted start time, the invigilator's traditional glance at the clock followed by the immortal words, "turn your papers over... now", silence until the paper was completed and an understanding of what to do and what you could, and could not, bring into the exam with you were all second nature to us.

And it wasn't just that we were aware of the regulations; exam technique was purely routine to us, meaning we could concentrate on actually answering the questions rather than worrying about whether we were spending too much, or too little, time on each.

Think about it; by the time we sat any exams that mattered, we had been through the whole rigmarole at least nine times before, and had sat AT LEAST 50-60 individual exams over the preceding four and a half years. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and the level of repetition we had experienced meant that, when the real exams finally arrived, the actual business of sitting an exam held no stress for us at all.

Even the business of revising for exams was something we were entirely familiar with, even if we didn't always do as much of it as we should :-) But, having done it so many times before, we knew what to revise, and how to revise. Everyone has their own favourite method of learning and retaining information; some hide away in a quiet corner and read their notes / text books, others listen to music or gather in a group.

The point is, we'd had many good opportunities to find out what worked best for us, long before we needed to know for real. I, for one, would not like to start learning how to revise in the run-up to my first real exam - now that WOULD be stressful! Over the years, the experience I gained in those practice runs stood me in good stead throughout my O'Levels, GCSEs, A'Levels, Higher National Diploma, BSc and postgraduate education.

According to their web site, the General Teaching Council's "...overall purpose is to help improve standards of teaching and the quality of learning in the public interest. We work for children, through teachers." Yet, this same body is behind a campaign to deny young people essential experience, not just in the way to prepare for GCSEs, but for all examinations throughout their life.

The quality of education coming out of our secondary schools may well be in terminal decline, but the rot has not yet fully set in at our Higher Education establishments. Any child hoping to obtain a useful degree had better know how to sit an exam, or they're going to be in for one hell of a shock!

Setting them up for such a massive culture shock in later life seems like a damn peculiar way of working for children, and I can't help wondering whether there might be something else behind this seemingly altruistic initiative. No doubt the truth will come out, eventually, but by then the upcoming generation might have become too dumbed down to recognise it.

Billy Seggars.

1 comment:

Pygmalion said...

You are absolutely right. I worked in institution of higher eduaction here, in Slovenia, and I saw immense decline of konwledge as well as learning skills among students. I think the world is really gone mad; in education, in culture, in all these little things that represented civilisation for the past 3000 years of human development.

We Europeans are often told by our governments that we should have more children, so our nations would not die out. But every year (and every time I read news about Paris Hilton and alike), I ask myself whether our civilization is not the one which will die out first. Watch a good old days' b/w film, like Pygmalion (1938) and compare it to our days. I think that even an optimist like Shaw would be shocked to see our days!

Regards, Marko Pinteric, Slovenia