After exams it's a waste of time

When the sweat of A-levels and GCSEs is over, term unofficially ends for the candidates. David Lister laments a missed opportunity for them to stay on and learn some valuable lessons
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A -level results this week, and GCSE results next week, will bring to some sort of conclusion eight weeks or more of angst for thousands of 16- and 18-year-olds.

They may agree with me that it would have been helpful if they had had a little less time in which to worry, though I suspect they will not agree with my proposed remedy.

Nor I suspect will their teachers; for every year, throughout the country, teachers connive with pupils in an astonishing waste of educational opportunity. This June, as in every June, school was out when the invigilator collected in the last paper of the last exam, and the long summer holiday began.

Though education for two year groups is summarily terminated in this way as a matter of course each summer, the practice is rarely, if ever, commented upon. But it is little short of a dereliction of duty by the teaching profession. And it surely goes against the most basic tenet of post-war educational theory, namely - as teachers religiously tell their charges throughout their school careers - that education is not merely about taking and passing exams.

Yet what is the implicit message signalled to thousands of school pupils? Precisely that education is purely about exams, and that once the exams are over, the school has no idea what to do with you, so go and hang about on the streets for five weeks. And five weeks is very much the norm, between external examinations finishing and school officially breaking up.

It is questionable enough to give such a message to 18-year-olds. To give it to children of 16, many of whom have not finished their full- time education at school, is lamentable.

What exactly is the rationale behind this premature ending of term, which seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon? That six weeks' rest after exams is not enough, and that the delicate, traumatised flowers might wilt without the full 11 weeks? Certainly, I would not recommend the procedure that existed when I was at school, which was to return to regular, timetabled lessons as soon as exams were over, as if the whole wretched business had been but a figment of the imagination. Some change of pace is desirable. Indeed, such a change could be turned to positive educational advantage.

One way to use those last weeks of term would be to offer A-level students a chance to brush up on basic literacy and numeracy, to help to negate the perennial comments of university admissions officers that these skills are lacking in too many entrants.

But there are more adventurous avenues, too, from cultural outings to organised team games. Why not a month-long course in citizenship for every 16- and 18-year-old? Some schools already run citizenship courses which include understanding and debating the concept of democracy, inviting visiting speakers, and going to see in action decision-making bodies such as councils, health authorities and the Houses of Parliament; some students also work in hospitals and help the sick and elderly. These courses could serve as models for a national scheme, with certificates of citizenship awarded at the end.

Education for life, a phrase much in vogue in the Seventies and Eighties, could at least have one month of official blessing during the five or more years of secondary schooling.

Education for university is another logical option for A-level students. Three months on, they are going to have to cope with a daunting range of new responsibilities, from opening a bank account to working in tutorials of as few as two people for the first time. Throw into the course a smidgen or two about sex and drugs, and you have a ready-made "preparation for university" module.

Even staying within an academic remit, there is an opportunity in the post-examination period to widen the knowledge of prospective university entrants. Our A-levels are consistently, and with some justice, criticised as being too narrow. Five weeks is not a long time to rectify that; but a scheme that had A-level students doing a course of study in a subject outside their specialisms - humanities students studying science, scientists studying literature - would go some way towards meeting concern about the narrowness of A-levels.

My own preference is a little more radical. It is for devoting a part of those last few weeks to teaching perhaps the only thing that virtually every pupil can be guaranteed to end up doing: parenting.

So much could be achieved in just a few days, never mind a few weeks, of lessons, lectures and discussion groups on babies and how to rear them, on what roles men and women should play in the home, and on bringing up children. Parents who were not at work could bring in their own babies and join in these lessons, and contribute their own advice.

At the very least, this would cause 16- and 18-year-olds to rethink some of their own assumptions about their future roles. It could make new men and new women of them all.

Teachers might find it a refreshing change too. It is less than convincing - in fact it is hypocritical - for them to complain regularly that the rigours of the national curriculum preclude them from offering a more rounded and balanced education, while merrily encouraging their pupils to have an extended holiday the moment examinations stop. After all, if schools hadn't introduced the premature leave-taking of 16- and 18-year- olds, it probably would never have occurred to the pupils that they were free to go.