A hushed room in summer time, the air heavy with anticipation. Sweaty palms and stolen glances as the clock hands edge ever closer to the hour and we wait, with bated breath, for the pronouncement of those three little words, "You may begin". I'm sorry, I know it's wrong, but I do love an exam.
As revelations go, this is shamefully, un-rock'n'roll, but I am willing nonetheless to confess that my most cherished memories of my time in education revolve around hazy June days punctuated by three-hour bouts of furious, Red Bull-fuelled scribbling in stuffy school halls.
Happily for me then, my education took place in an age that allowed, or rather obliged, me to engage in my favourite academic activity on an annual basis. But exams are not for everyone, and the industrial action threatened by the National Association of Head Teachers over the statutory SATs has highlighted the degree to which schoolchildren nowadays are subject to testing.
The NAHT claims that the system is responsible for counter-productive levels of stress among pupils and that it serves to hinder the provision of a rounded education. Meanwhile, the head of a leading independent school yesterday called for the scrapping of GCSEs at 16 in favour of internal assessment methods.
By rights, I should be the first to leap to the defence of the examination system. For a long time it served me well, since a large factor in my love of exams was – at the risk (OK, the certainty) of sounding full of myself – the fact that I was good at them. But leaving school with a clutch of impressive grades will only get you so far, and you don't have to be a genius to realise that if exams are an accurate measure of anything, it is of one's comparative ability to work intensely for short bursts, memorise large quantities of information and spot the right cues to regurgitate it all. I simply grasped the rules of the game and used them to my advantage. While my father can reel off screeds of poetry from his O-level English days, I struggle to remember which GSCE subjects I actually took.
It is when you leave education for good that you really begin to question whether all those hours of assessments are quite the right preparation for later life. Suddenly, the exam-free future stretching before you can feel unsettling. How are you to get your hands on a neatly-stamped certificate that proves you are good at your job? It took longer than it should have for me to realise that success in the real world comes from sustained performance, not a series of hit-and-run demonstrations of ability.
Of course, assessment is an essential part of education and exams represent one of a number of useful means of measuring achievement. But relying too heavily on the year-in-year-out treadmill of testing wastes valuable learning time and leaves many pupils with an intimate knowledge of nothing more than a life of anxiety. Not a bad training for the world beyond, admittedly, but one that hardly needs to begin in primary school.
The NAHT's threat to boycott the Key Stage 2 tests may not seem like the most productive route towards reform, but it does send a clear message that this is one arbitrary academic hoop that children – and teachers – should not be forced to jump through. Even a die-hard exam fan such as myself wouldn't argue with that.Reuse content