Many of my Twitter friends this week have children going through exams – A-Levels and SATS to be specific. I have a few years luckily before I get to that stage (although following the trend in education over the last few years I maybe shouldn’t count on that. No doubt before long there’ll be an entrance exam for primary school requiring children to submit essays and solve algebraic equations before they can go into Reception) and I’m not looking forward to it.
When I was at school, and it isn’t that long ago although it seems like it sometimes, I managed to get all the way through to secondary school without formal testing. In fact, I managed to get to Year 9 without formal testing – that’s fourteen years old. One of my favourite Twitter friends, Jane, has a ten year old who is upset and stressed because he has to undergo exams. A TEN year old. Now, I’m a freak who actually quite enjoys exams. I work better under that pressure, I have the kind of mind that suits that way of working. I prefer exams to coursework to be honest, but that’s just me. But I still found the exam experience moderately stressful, and as I said I was fourteen before I went through it. I can’t imagine how I would have reacted if they’d started at ten or earlier. I almost certainly wouldn’t have faced my GCSEs and A-levels in the same way.
It’s not like I completely escaped tests up until Year 9 of course. My teachers (and I was exceptionally lucky in almost all of my teachers) would do informal tests, spot tests, quizzes, spelling tests, mental tests (arithmetic to you old codgers). Even, as I got older, old exam papers or questions. But there was no real pressure on these. They were, quite clearly, used to see how we were getting on and to try different ways of learning – because obviously you learn things for a test in a different way to reading or listening and all three approaches are useful in their turn. But, as I said, they were clearly for our benefit.
I can’t see how the current tests and exams are for anyone’s benefit but the local Education Authority’s. They’re about league tables and school performance and teaching ability. And they’re putting undue stress on our children. They’re sacrificing children’s mental health for the sake of brownie points for the LEA. I don’t think that’s too much of an exaggeration. Exams, and the focus on exams and grades, will suck the joy out of learning. Reading will be revising for exams, leaving no time for reading for pleasure.
You know the really sad thing? Exams don’t matter. Oh, they do at the time, hugely. And each time you get to the next stage you wonder what the fuss was about, because these exams are REALLY important. But they’re not. What you end up doing can bear little relation to what grade you got for your GCSE Maths (A, if you’re wondering. To the constant bewilderment of my husband. And me) and absolutely none to your SATS.
I’m not saying exams should be scrapped – far from it. They’re an important part of assessment, particularly in the later stages of school, and they suit some people more than others and they help reinforce what’s been learned through the year. But maybe a reality check wouldn’t hurt? Perhaps removing the unnecessary exams from the earlier years and ongoing assessment (which still goes on ANYWAY) left to the teachers, who know their children best and who would then be able to give more time and attention to those children instead of cramming preparation for exams into a packed timetable.
There’s loads of discussion about issues like the early sexualisation of children and I think this is actually part of a big overall problem of making our children grow up too early. Pressures like exams and revision and results will come to them soon enough – can’t we protect them from it as long as possible? Childhood is a relatively recent concept – off the top of my head I believe the idea of ‘being a child’ rather than a miniature adult has only been around a couple of hundred years. It seems that this is just yet another aspect of life that is regressing. And that is so, so sad.