"Education, education, education"? Testing, testing, testing. The first is what we were promised, the latter is what we've got. A week ago last Friday, my 17-year-old son's first year in the sixth form came to a dreary conclusion with an afternoon of three examinations on the trot: physics, physics, and more physics. He didn't have a break in between, and when he got home he looked drained. His generation has had the lot: they were the first to sit standard assessment tests at the ages of seven, 11 and 14, and now they are guinea-pigs again. Cramming the new AS-level exam into two terms clearly doesn't work, but that is how it was this year, and that is the only lower-sixth year he is going to have. He has had good teachers, and we're grateful to them; but if you ask him or his contemporaries for a word to sum up their first taste of life in the sixth form, the last one that any of them would come up with is "fun".
Still, at least he stayed the course. Delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers conference last week heard claims that many sixth-formers are now feeling so stressed by the demands of the AS-level that they are simply dropping out of school altogether.
"There's a real danger of disillusionment setting in, of youngsters saying to themselves that this is not what staying on in education was supposed to be like," said Clarissa Williams, head of Tolworth Girls School in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey.
They would have every right to feel disillusioned. Making the decision to stay on after 16 is bound to be a disappointment if all that is on offer is more of the same.
Today's state-educated 17-year-olds have had so much testing crammed into their lives that they haven't had time to be educated. Until only a couple of years ago, they could have looked forward to a bit of free-range learning in the sixth form, but the bungled introduction of the AS-level has put paid to that. The last two years of school are now a force-fed factory farm like the rest.
The first-year sixth used to be an exam-free period in which young people settled into a course of higher study, got their bearings, did a bit of growing up and had time for any number of extra-curricular activities. When I was 17 I played cricket, debated, acted in the school play, wrote for the school magazine, did voluntary work for the house-bound and handicapped, and went on numerous outings and trips. Most of my contemporaries did as much. My son has done none of these things in the past nine months; he simply hasn't had the energy or time.
No doubt the authorities will juggle with the exam timetables so that in future it will at least be possible to get through the AS course before the test. But extending the examination culture into the lower sixth at all is a sign that the Government has little regard for the extra-curricular activities that are so important to a well-rounded education. Not that that's a phrase that you hear politicians use much; their talk is not of cultural enrichment or personal development but of progression, attainments and targets. And the ultimate target is a job of work.
It is this narrow, utilitarian view of education that has spawned the exam-choked culture of drudgery in our schools. It is also, ironically, self-defeating, for the politicians have failed to grasp that narrow-track education does not equip anyone to contribute much to the ever-changing world of employment. What makes it even worse is that this orthodoxy is rigidly imposed on schools by and through an inescapable system of tests. It is a system that values nothing unless it quantifiable; the mindset is that it is only what can be counted that counts. The result is a distortion that is as stupid as it is unfortunate. Anyone who knows anything about the human condition knows that the things of most value are immeasurable. And hard-pressed teachers know that if their job depends on turning in results, turn in those results they will, however unrepresentative that might be of any real achievement.
Sometimes, the pressure is so great that teachers cheat, and there was a flurry of such stories published last week. I certainly cheated before I walked away from teaching three years ago. When I filled in the forms that I absolutely had to, I wrote on them whatever the system wanted to read, irrespective of the truth. But when the tough school I taught in came under the inspector's microscope, that strategy wasn't enough. I wasn't prepared to write plans for every lesson broken down into five-minute sections, let alone record outcomes under countless columns on pages bursting from a ring-binder too fat to fit in my briefcase. I quit.
Since then, the pressures on teachers have become even greater. Last year, the number of cases of falsified standard attainment test results referred to the qualifications and curriculum authority almost doubled; 270 cases were reported, and inevitably there will have been many more that were not.
There are stories of papers opened early so that children can be coached to answer particular questions, of hints, prods and prompts offered during the exams, and of punctuation marks, decimal points and minus signs added before papers are marked. It would seem that the Government's recruiting slogan for teachers contains all the letters necessary to make a statement much nearer the truth: those who can, cheat.
Well, some of them do, anyway, and it is hard to summon up much righteous indignation at the thought of it. Outrage is better directed at the micrometer-minded measurement freaks who don't realise that, by demanding and getting higher statistical results, they are producing not better-educated children but children who are better trained to pass particular tests – and teachers who have developed better strategies at getting them through them.
That one of those strategies should be cheating is nothing to be pleased about, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. Far more dishonest than any pitiful attempts to pick up a few marks on behalf of pupils is the Government's claim that the statistics generated by its tests reflect real improvement. Since 1995, the number of children reaching the target grade in English and maths has risen from less than 50 per cent to nearly 75, but independent assessments by the University of Durham and the National Foundation for Educational Research show minimal improvement or none. The discrepancy is a perfect example of Professor Goodhart's law in action: "Statistical regularity will tend to collapse," he wrote, "once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes."
And control is what contemporary education is all about. By choosing to exercise it through testing, the Government might get the results it requires, but those results are about as genuine as the compliments addressed to the emperor with no clothes, or the protestations of love made by the daughters of King Lear. Worse, when a system values only what is measurable, it allows little time, energy or incentive to do anything else. Education should be for the whole of life, not just for the part of it that will be spent in employment. My son has worked hard, and his A-level grades might very well turn out to be better than mine. Whether they are or they aren't, I shall be proud of him. But at my school, I was far better educated. His generation has missed out on much.Reuse content