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

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The Independent Online

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.