Imagine this conversation on A-level results day.
Teacher: “Congratulations on your results.”
18-year-old: “Thank you for your help in getting them.”
Now imagine, in the not-so-distant future, the same conversation taking place, but with the roles reversed. In a public service which is treated as a business, such a fictional exchange would not be as absurd as it sounds.
The point of exam results, rather than to be a rough indicator of a young person’s academic development, has become to act as the means by which we judge teachers and schools. Those in power are sending the message to young people that their results are not their own responsibility.
Our exam results culture is defined by the vague discussion every year of “raising standards” – a phrase which appears impossible to oppose on reasonable grounds, until one realises that, depending on who is saying it, we could roughly translate it into either “making exam percentages improve” or “making exams tougher, and still expecting the percentages to improve.”
Rather than helping to nurture young people who are best equipped to face the world in front of them, it encourages them to see themselves as dependent customers of the state. We are telling our teenagers to expect revision guides, extra classes and “interventions” from us, and even primary school teachers frequently report similar features creeping in at ever-younger ages in order to boost SATS results.
Current manoeuvring among politicians and some headteachers to encourage competition between teachers – such as bringing in performance-related pay – will only exacerbate the the neglect of the individual pupil’s role in their own results.
Politicians tell us that the need to take personal responsibility is at the heart of policies such as benefit cuts, but they appear happy to hinder the development of that quality in our youngsters. There is a gathering wind behind the idea that 16-year-olds should be trusted with the same voting privilege as their elders, yet youngsters of the same age are having basic choices over their own education withdrawn, with a remarkable level of consensus in favour of doing so.
There is also broad agreement that many 16-year-olds who have gained little from compulsory education should go back to school until the age of 18, and that those who do not gain a C at GCSE Maths and English should re-sit them until they do; the mooted moves to make everyone study maths to the age of 18 would continue the pattern.
This is poor preparation for the ever-expanding range of choices that life will throw at them, and the tone set in Westminster encourages school leaders, concerned about exam statistics and wanting to avoid the perception that schools are not doing enough, to value the headlines over the development of human beings.
Perhaps we have simply accepted the decline of responsibility and independence in society. Young adults face the struggle to stand on their own feet, facing high youth unemployment or under-employment.
Studies suggest that parents are increasingly unwilling to allow their children to take risks; and being patronised seems to be a feature of daily life when the announcement is made at a train station to carry a bottle of water with you in hot weather. Yet this is hardly a desirable state of affairs and more worryingly, our current culture in education will encourage increased atomisation, consumerism and contempt for public servants.
If you get the message that exam results are all that matter when you are young, why should you feel any sense of community when you are older? If your part in education is merely as a consumer, why should you see yourself as anything else in later life? If you are given the message that your teachers are responsible for your results, why should you, for example, look after your health – surely that’s your doctor’s responsibility?
So today, our young people collecting their envelopes deserve congratulations, or indeed commiserations, and our teachers deserve thanks.
We should resolve to send those who go through our schools in the coming years the messages that their results matter, but are only an indicator of what they can do in one particular academic discipline. They are not a guarantee of a happy or unhappy life. We should also ensure that adults guide, help and push students as far as they can, but make sure they take complete responsibility for their grades. And when their results day arrives, they will appreciate their achievements, without others trying to claim them as their own.