Laurie Penny: It's the exams that dumb us down

Related Topics

For those of us who grew up in the New Labour school system, May is the cruellest month. The late spring air is pregnant with a quiet atmosphere of panic that can mean only one thing: exam season. Two years after closing the page on the last of the 321 exams I took between the ages of 5 and 22, the anxious memory of revision still rises unbidden at this time of year. Despite repeated promises of reform, young people in Britain are the most examined in the world, sitting standardised tests almost every year from early infancy until we leave education.

Before the election, Conservatives assured teachers and parents that something would be done to overhaul the system. That something has turned out to be: more competition and harder tests. Responding to dull, belligerent media stereotypes about "exams getting easier," Michael Gove declared last week that "dumbing down has got to stop".

Ofqual, the body regulating exams and qualifications, will be encouraged to crack down on "Mickey Mouse" GCSEs, which are apparently preventing young people from acquiring the jobs employers are just desperate to throw at school leavers these days. The evisceration of the public sector and the destruction of mitigating schemes such as the Future Jobs Fund clearly have less to do with youth unemployment than those pesky media studies lessons.

The one thing that British schoolchildren do not need is more competition. The problem is not "dumbing down," but a cut-throat routine of constant assessment, where teachers who are not trusted to teach squeeze dull stacks of standardised scores out of pupils who are not trusted to learn. Independent thought and creativity are discouraged in this process – not out of some Orwellian desire to eliminate individual development, but because the lassitudes of the exam system simply do not allow time or space to explore ideas that cannot translate into league table results.

My sensitive English teacher, Ms Yates, who would hand me non-syllabus novels as if they were contraband, almost wept when the time came for our class to vivisect Shakespeare's Macbeth. We anatomised that play with bloody, ruthless efficiency, dismembering it into themes of guilt and greed, learning to identify which pieces of symbolism would gain us extra marks in the paper. "Is this a dagger I see before me?" we droned. It wasn't: it was a list of assessment objectives.

Whatever our academic abilities, few of us found this narrow, Gradgrind routine remotely inspiring. Many of my classmates developed crippling problems with self-confidence, or simply refused to participate. Others knuckled under, because we were told that only by learning the syllabus and passing all the exams would we eventually find fulfilling work. This was, quite clearly, an enormous lie.

Those of us who left education after 2007 struggled to find even the most menial call-centre work, no matter how many A-stars we had produced. Instead, any good jobs going went to rich kids who could afford unpaid internships. Hundreds of thousands of young people taking their final exams this summer will enter the job market with few prospects and thousands of pounds worth of debt – only to find themselves stereotyped as dumbed-down do- nothings.

Young people in Britain have been deceived: despite all our hard work, class privilege is still the most likely predictor of success in later life. In a stagnant economy, with inflation at 4.5 per cent and youth unemployment at 20 per cent, "Mickey Mouse" GCSEs are hardly the main factor preventing pupils from finding work.

This week, some newspapers mocked one "dumbed-down" GCSE-equivalent citizenship syllabus for including information on how to claim unemployment benefit. It looks increasingly like a vital life skill.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before