'Oh for heavens sake...' muttered my science teacher, brandishing a fistful of marked mock exam papers at his nervous class. 'Stop CRAPPING all over the QUESTIONS!' Thus followed an entire lesson on exam technique to help trim back our rambling, excrement-like responses to 'what the exam board wants to see', and to get us 'thinking like an examiner'.
As a teenager I learned pretty swiftly that exam boards didn't care if you could write a novel on photosynthesis or recite the periodic table backwards while gargling marmite - if you didn't bone up on past papers or use 'key words', your knowledge was useless. Exams weren't necessarily about proving you'd spent a year immersing yourself in a particular subject, they were about your ability to memorise pre-packaged information and predict which questions were likely to come up. And if you were unlucky enough to have a bad morning when the Big Day arrived? Tough.
Which is why I'm blown away by Michael Gove's proposed GCSE reforms - which from 2015 are to see modular exams and coursework cut back in favour of 'do or die' style final exams sat at the end of two years of studies, with no option to re-sit. It's all part of a drive to toughen up assessment and push teenagers to catch up with high-achieving nations such as Finland and Singapore...by making it bloody hard for them to obtain top grades. Confused? Me too.
Undoubtedly the current assessment system has its problems - but casually butchering coursework from the curriculum and lumping huge amounts of pressure on final exams surely isn't the answer. What about those who lose the ability to form coherent sentences in exam situations? Some people, through no lack of brainpower, just aren't good at exams - but performing badly under exam pressure doesn't necessarily mean a pupil hasn't understood their subject, or spent all night feverishly going over and over how to conjugate a German verb until it's imprinted in their grey matter for eternity. I'd wager that most GCSE Geography graduates will still be able to diagramise vigorously memorised stages of oxbow lake formation when they reach old age, but they won't know what a chair is.
I refer you to my French AS level oral exam - ten years later I can still lecture you in fluent French on the perils of illegal drugs for three perfectly memorised minutes, but I'd never be able to hold my own in a French conversation or find out where the train station is in Toulouse. Exams encourage students to focus so much time and energy on very specific areas of a subject that vast swathes of knowledge is lost to the abyss. Not to mention the 'in one ear and out the other' effect that intensive exam cramming sessions can have.
And what about the simple, totally overlooked idea that learning's actually supposed to be, you know, fun? I have blissfully happy memories of burying my nose in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World to dream up a piece of written coursework about Orwelian dystopia - I can admit that now without having my bra straps painfully pinged in the canteen - but my recollections of exam preparation aren't so fond. The night before a big exam, far from revelling in the joys of learning, I'd be far more likely to be found gouging my eye out with a spoon while shrieking quadratic equation formulae at the wall.
A small amount of stress is great for giving anyone a kick up the backside and an incentive to work hard, but exams can turn the most relaxed of kids into a gibbering, hysterical wreck. It's scientifically proven that stress works against intelligence and memory - and what's more anxiety inducing than the prospect of having your future determined by a three-hour slot, with no hope of a second chance should it all go wrong? Unless you're facing 180 minutes of Justin Bieber on repeat, I defy you to answer.
Gove's new proposals have been labelled 'totally out of touch with modern Britain' by Labour, and I agree. Aside from the issue of whether we should trust a man who thought it a spiffing idea for tax payers to splash out on a new yacht for Queen Liz's Jubilee, the new system just isn't compatible with real life. Most modern jobs expect continuous deadlines to be met - you won't get two years to fill out that report, and how University students can be expected to complete lengthy dissertations having never written an essay is beyond me.
'It is time for the race to the bottom to end,' Gove told MPs. 'It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations.' Hello, 1953, we missed you.
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