I am in the midst of exams; currently bracketed on either side by those that have happened and those that are yet to come. For the last few months my tools have been pens, A3 paper, spider diagrams, blank word documents, crinkled texts, information booklets, powerpoint sheets, test essays and coffee. The last item on that list has propelled me through the use of all the others.
However, the coffee isn’t quite as bitter as my recognition that all this work counts for little. Two months (in fact, two years) of preparation is squeezed into two hours, or less, of frantic writing. In yesterday’s exams my word counts were lengthy while time for thought was short. A strange state of anti-climax hung in the aftermath. Was that it? Was that what I had been working for? A set of questions testing perhaps a quarter of the knowledge carefully accumulated and squirreled away?
Of course, the answer is that I have been working for the grades that will, I hope, ensure my university place. Those letters I’ll gain are the linchpins securing the next three years. But this only partly salves the frustration of these exams that prove little more than the capacity of one’s short-term memory, and the ability to deck out each paragraph with points to tick the right boxes.
I love education: the acquisition of knowledge; exploration; the improvement of my arguments; the thrill of wide learning about literature, philosophy and history (my three subjects). What I don’t love is the way that education is measured through a set of exams bearing little resemblance to the adult world of work. It’s hard to imagine an employee being asked to put together a long presentation without any notes, or a journalist to write an extensive review of a novel in just an hour whilst only using memorized quotes. The latter is a real sticking point. There is an undoubted pleasure in knowing a poem or monologue off by heart, but I have friends required to remember lines from nine different texts in order to satisfy the ‘closed book’ criteria of their exams. Prose and verse is reduced to easily reproduced phrases and references. Independent thought does not have a place. Rehearsed formulas do.
I'm one of the fortunate ones who can mould themselves to the system. I can follow the ins and outs of a mark scheme, even if it feels inhibiting. But many bright and capable students are failed either by the indifference of their school (because success is partly a reflection of the calibre of teachers), or by the rigid expectations of assessment. The student body of Britain encompasses hugely varying levels of skill, learning style, interest, capacity, creativity and specialist areas, but the only choice we have when it comes to further education is which subjects and qualifications to study. My choice, A-Levels are a one-size-fits-all qualification.
These may be considered small gripes though when one thinks of those such as the extraordinary Malala Yousafzai. Here in the UK, education is expected, mandatory even, rather than denied. My journey to sixth form and near completion of my A-Levels was merely a slog rather than potentially dangerous or life threatening. I both acknowledge and am grateful for the fact that I come from a family environment and live in a society that enables learning and academic opportunity. But there are still serious flaws within the English education system, set to get worse now Gove has his hands on it. Politicians never have to directly experience the consequences of their policies. It is pupils and students who do. Thus, to significantly twist some lyrics from The Who, perhaps it’s time that we all start, “talking about our education.”
The dress worn here, a lovely gift from my fairy godmother (origin – Monsoon), has been helping to brighten up revision sessions in the sunshine. Just before these photos were taken I was hunched over notes on Wittgenstein & Aquinas, whilst my parents read the paper. It was fun to have an interlude where I could splash through the water and ‘swim’ in the field of grass.