Martha Robinson: A-levels are hard – in the wrong places

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If you're about to collect the exam results that hold the key to your future, it's frustrating to wake up to the news that 25 per cent of A-level students this year will receive A grades, and to the seasonal accusation that exams have got easier. It's even more frustrating when you know it's true. Don't get me wrong: A-levels are hard. As a member of that 25 per cent, I sacrificed a social life, two years' worth of reading, and a lot of sleep to make the grades. The problem is they're hard in all the wrong places.

Every lesson of the past two years – in my chosen subjects of Biology, Physics, Chemistry, French and Philosophy – has been focused on examinations. The year is structured around the syllabus and past exam papers. On attempting to sign myself up for 5 A-level courses, I was told I was crazy. No university takes the fifth qualification into account and anyway, no teacher would want a student who is only interested in their subject as a "hobby". The implication being, of course, that the only reason to take an A-level is to progress to the next step.

Our courses are spoon-fed to us in bite-sized chunks of what we "need to know" in order to pass the exam. This system allows many students (especially lucky, bright, middle-class ones) to leave school with a hat full of As having never faced an intellectual challenge.

After all, when an A is the highest you can achieve, any effort or thought beyond that becomes irrelevant. Questions that go beyond the syllabus are no longer the mark of an inquiring mind, but instead distraction from the need to cover every aspect of the course before the exam rolls around.

So, do I blame the teachers? Not in the slightest.

Teachers today are under a lot of pressure to take learning from being a collective experience of discovering something new and exciting about the world and make it something standardised, fixed. Every lesson must begin with a "lesson objective" written on the board – a mandatory requirement at my alma mater.

Some of the best lessons I've ever had stem from some interesting diversion that engages the class and stimulates a discussion that deepens the love of and interest in the subject of everyone concerned. Any English (or, God forbid, Philosophy) class that doesn't constantly veer "off topic" is clearly not engaged with the very essence of their subject.

It is only going to get worse. The changes to next year's A-levels have been touted as a fix for the slide in standards, but, unfortunately, tacking on an extra grade and changing the focus of the science A-levels (to better accommodate graduates of the new science GCSEs schooled in "relevancy" rather than actual science) will not address the central rot in the system.

The aim of education should not be to produce "candidates" with high but meaningless exam results, but to encourage in the next generation a love of learning that will follow them in whatever they do.

Education should not be about the job market. Nor should it be about socialising children, nor about getting into a "prestigious" university. Education must be about education – about looking at the world and struggling to understand it. That's what I've been lucky enough to learn from my teachers, and it most certainly was not on the syllabus. If you cannot see your subject as a "hobby" then you simply should not be taking it.

The writer has just taken her A-levels at a comprehensive school in south London and is to read medicine at University College London

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