Let’s drop the drumbeat of exams and allow our young people to thrive
Why are young people having to conform to a failed education system?
The exams debacle this summer exposed a Government completely out of control of its own education system, resulting in a number of embarrassing u-turns. Not only did the A’Level, BTEC and GCSE fiasco momentarily devastate those pupils who experienced the ‘mutant algorithm’ downgrade as their dreams were temporarily disrupted, it has also put the spotlight back on what is happening in our schools.
If education is to stretch young minds, challenge, help people discover their gifts and talents to shape the economy of the future, then education has missed the mark for so many young people.
Today it is the drumbeat of exams, data and assessment that drives teachers and pupils. Teachers are continuously under scrutiny as their pupils’ results are used to assess them. Rather than the progress they have made with advancing their children and young people, they are placed under insurmountable pressure to make their grades through the efforts of their pupils. One crude assessment tool, the exam, spread over just a few hours, is all that is used to judge whether someone will have a successful future or not, whether a school is outstanding or requiring improvement and whether teachers, professionally trained, can teach.
Unparalleled to the experience of the rest of our lives, exams crudely judge on the basis of the questions set for one brief moment in time. With the rest of our futures depending on this fleeting occurrence; it defies all logic.
The acquisition of knowledge is important. Understanding how to navigate yourself through a complex world with the necessary skills to chart your course to accomplish your goal is more than valuable. However, if you never get to enjoy the journey, mature as a person and gain your confidence then you must ask what has really been achieved.
Our young people today experience significant levels of poor mental health. It is hard enough, for any of us to get through those teenage years, but when put under undue pressure, young minds struggle. So, when you are not able to demonstrate your strengths because subjects aren’t taught or you are not one who excels in exams, you are judged unfairly. A good education system would want to support a healthy mind and cause your strengths to shine out.
Many creative subjects have been removed from the curriculum to make way for ‘academic’ subjects; sport, which refreshes the body and mind, has been replaced by longer periods of sitting at a desk; and skills or crafts or art or music have been downgraded in their importance resulting in a lost generation of artists, musicians, and athletes.
When young people do not learn how to use tools or sew or cook, to fix a broken bit of kit or to provide basic care, then how do we expect them to run a home and bring up a family?
As part of the Covid-19 recovery, we are seeing many of the elite private schools investing anew in the arts, farming, skills and leisure. Why, because they understand that a balanced young person will be able to find their way better in the world? So why can’t all our young people enjoy such privilege?
I talk to local businesses, who cite how school leavers and graduates today simply do not have the skills that their businesses require because those core life skills are simply not taught. We have to ask why not? Why are schools not teaching citizenship, business skills, climate science, digital science and engineering alongside English, maths and German? Why are we not putting more time into finding the strengths and talents of all young people and then training them and releasing them into places where they will excel, gain confidence and ultimately put their focus?
If we are serious about building an economy for the future, improving productivity and being world leaders again, we should be equipping our young people with a curriculum that really helps all our young people to soar not stumble. We should teach the skills that a future economy demands. While knowledge is a great asset, knowing how to research and critically appraise information is of far more value.
If we are serious about developing confident, well-rounded young people, we should invest in their wellbeing, both physical and mental, and we should create space for them to discover who they are, relationships with others and their relationships with the world around them.
If we are serious about assessing our young people, we would take years over this, not hours, we would test all different forms of learning in many different ways: project work, exams, continuous assessment and problem-solving challenges.
When a young person struggles at school, they simply lose their interest in education and become a statistic; to cause a young person to find their niche will engage their attention, develop a real enthusiasm and expertise and cause them to flourish.
We hear the challenges of social mobility and yet the school system today stigmatises those whose skills don’t match the demands of Government. The attainment gap highlights how the curriculum is shaped with a bias, and those who have strengths in other areas are never given the chance to demonstrate them. Instead of enabling everyone to succeed, it crushes those who do not fit the box.
We could call it discrimination; we could call it out as failing. Labour’s Every Child Matters strategy got to grips with how this should be implemented for children in their early years; it is now time to develop the curriculum for all young people.
Universities and colleges also have their role to play. If they started to dictate other terms, we would soon see the education system having to bend to their demands too.
My question is this: not what should be done, but who is brave enough to do it? Then again, those in power weren’t taught to stretch their minds, challenge, help discover their gifts and talents to shape the economy of the future.