I want my children to be educated, not just examined

To say you are concerned about exam pressure is to be condemned as a feeble-minded liberal
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The Independent Culture
IF ANYONE worries that Britain's growing obsession with exams is some form of peculiar national madness, they would have had their suspicions amply confirmed by David Blunkett's latest announcement that GCSEs, an exam designed for 16-year olds, should be taken by children as young as 11.

No doubt the move was well meaning. David Blunkett is keen to attract parents, particularly those in London, away from the private sector and back into state schools - a traditional Labour desire. He hopes that enabling bright pupils to take their exams early will convince parents that state schools have high standards, that they too are ambitious for the academically able.

Yet what this move exposes, almost more than any single policy of this Government to date, is that it is confusing examinations with education. I say this because the policy clearly demonstrates an inability to conceive any other way of stretching a bright child other than by entering them for an exam early. And such a lack of imagination may, perversely, end up damaging the very sector the policy sought to promote.

Our current obsession with evaluating the quality of education by league tables of exam results means that the state sector, which is overwhelmingly non-selective, continues to look poor against highly selective independent schools. Only the comprehensives that select via the back door come close to competing in this very narrow indicator of success - those like the London Oratory where Tony Blair sends his sons, or those with a particularly favourable catchment area where selection arises from house prices. Neither of these are conducive to producing the inclusive, stake-holding state sector Mr Blunkett claims he wishes to promote. For although they hotly deny it and Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, refuses to admit it, painstaking research at the London School of Economics by Tony Travers has revealed that a school's league table position says everything about the level of social deprivation of the pupils and very little about the quality of teaching and learning.

Yet because so much in New Labour is about outward appearance not substance, about product not process, these state schools are condemned to become like Hyacinth Bucket - keeping up those appearances which allow little or no deviation from a government-imposed educational etiquette. So state schools will feel obliged to enter children at a younger and younger age for GCSEs as visible proof that they are doing right by the more able.

But there is further evidence that Labour has forgotten that, above all, a state education system should be about the benefit of all children. To say that you are concerned about the pressure placed on young people in the current exam culture is to be condemned as a feeble-minded liberal, the two almost always being synonymous in New Labour speak. But I have to confess to having met few people who actually liked exams. More importantly, the earlier they are introduced, the more likely they are to cement a sense of failure.

Such an observation is often characterised as anti-elitist but it is something we should take seriously. A friend's seven-year-old took her Key Stage 1 tests this summer. The school handled it well. She did not show any visible signs of stress but she did show a morbid interest in the way in which they were graded because she sensed this was significant. Having the keen and enquiring mind of any self respecting seven-year- old she wanted to know what you could get. Both her teacher and parents tried to play it down as much as they could but she was bright enough to work out that if she got a Level 1 this was bad, that a Level 2 was average and that a Level 3 was what marked you out as being ahead of the pack.

When her report came she refused to be fobbed off with the usual pleasantries that she had done very well and that they were all very proud of her. She wanted to know what she had got. On hearing that she had only got a two in her maths and a three in everything else she announced, with a relatively sanguine air by way of explanation for this disappointing lapse, that she was no good at maths. At the risk of sounding anti-elitist, I have to confess that I do not believe that this child has been aided by the testing regime imposed by the last government and zealously continued by this one.

I too have children in state schools. Stretching before them are many more years of an exam-dominated system. As a parent this bothers me. I realise that this is possibly a peculiar perversity, and that Labour's policies are designed to please me, but I believe I am not alone. As a parent I have the possibility of enriching my daughters' impoverished diet of syllabus-bound schooling with trips to the museum, extra curricular music lessons or drama classes. I can take them abroad on holidays and buy them extra books to supplement the literacy hour. I can afford to. There are many children in their primary school who are less fortunate.

When the award-winning children's author David Almond had the temerity to suggest that schools should be allowed one month off a year from the constraints of exams, inspections and all the paraphernalia of the new accountability culture, his desire to let the imagination roam for this brief period was met with short shrift. While not naming him directly, Mr Blunkett replied in the Daily Mail two days later. "There are even those who suggest that learning to read properly threatens creativity. Can they really be taken seriously? Are they actually claiming that to be illiterate helps you to become a better artist?" Of course he was not. But if every time someone mentions the need for more creativity or imagination they are met with such an emotive response, then our ability to discuss what is needed from a well-rounded education is further eroded.

Good state provision, genuinely comprehensive education, was not only about taking pupils of all abilities but about offering a breadth of experience and a varied curriculum. But as the demand to succeed in the exam race is fast becoming the only reason for attending lessons this important aim is in danger of being lost. I want my children and the countless thousands like them to be educated, not simply schooled.

The author is a lecturer in education at King's College, London