Zoe Pilger: I'm fat, lazy and spoon fed A-levels

... at least, that's what you'll have been told. But don't blame me, blame the examination system
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Once again we are told that A-levels are getting easier. This is an old story, dragged out every year as yet more proof of the cushioned, consumerist state of the young in today's Britain. If you choose to believe what you read in the press, young people are fat, addicted to trash television, devoid of all interest in politics and, to top it all, have exam grades handed to them in much the same manner as their convenience meals: low effort, ready-made.

Not only is this portrayal false, it serves the politically safe purpose of channelling debate away from the issues that concern young people. The question as to whether exams are getting easier, or even whether we, as candidates, are becoming more intelligent, pales alongside the reality that blights most young people today and which remains the most potent and divisive source of anxiety. This is the exam system itself.

My own education has been overwhelmingly defined by exams. From the age of seven I have gone through the standard rigmarole of SATs, CATs, GCSEs, AS-levels and, now finally, A-levels. Like all students, I have navigated the maze of abbreviations, numbers, grades and percentages.

At my school, as in all schools, students are divided into two categories: the "pat-on-the-heads" or "achievers"; and the "you'll-do-better-next-times" or the diplomatically labelled "under-achievers". I learnt at a young age that exams are designed just as much to celebrate those deemed successful as they are to alienate those who, for a whole range of social, emotional or economic reasons, are unable to conform to the system.

And so what of the young people who fail to get through the entrance exam of their local secondary school? Or who fail the SATs that determine their set band at GCSE? Or the A-levels that, most importantly, decide which, if any, university they attend? These questions are left unanswered. As those who have endured this kind of misfortune will know, there are precious few second chances for those who find themselves lost in the midst of a rat race as vicious as anything in the adult world. Early disillusion with exams can lead to permanent disadvantage, as students are conditioned to see good grades as the only valid form of educational achievement.

The true essence of learning, as a form of empowerment and understanding, is buried in the management style of our New Labour culture. Learning for the sake of learning, a concept considered "a bit dodgy" by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is seen as simply eccentric when cited as a worthy enough reason to go to school.

Impetus is placed firmly on getting a job, getting ahead and using education as merely a stepping-stone to achieving this goal. A visiting careers advice company, while conducting an assembly to a group of GCSE students at my school, made it brutally clear what the real reasons are for progressing to higher education. In the soundbite-friendly, business-orientated spirit of New Labour, its slogan was simple: "Learn more, earn more".

Exams carry a corporate flavour, a standardisation, that began with Margaret Thatcher's championing of the national curriculum in the 1980s. A one-size-fits-all mentality prevails now in the classrooms of our comprehensive schools, which are so desperately in need of greater funding and yet are punished with extra paperwork for teachers, as well as extra hours spent negotiating the vast and inflexible syllabuses.

The Government's obsession with the exam system only exacerbates problems such as oversized classes or a reliance on inexperienced supply teachers. A sense of helplessness or cynicism in the face of exam failure is symptomatic of a generation reared on centralised syllabuses that allow little room for creativity or improvisation.

Some 50 years of British history at A-level can be transformed into a set of bullet-points which must be memorised and ticked off. With external exams being held every summer, there is now barely nine months in which to be taught before our knowledge is tested. This leads to a distorted momentum of mock exams, frantic cramming, then an anti-climax until the dreaded date in August when you learn your fate. It feels like reality TV without the cameras, and has the effect of dividing people into those who have "earned the right" to feel successful and well-rounded, and those unsure of the future or themselves.

Is this a healthy way to conduct the most potentially thrilling years of our children's education? Clearly something in the system is not work- ing, as we are now faced with the bizarre paradox of a generation educated better than ever before, and yet accused of unprecedented levels of indifference. The Government has succeeded in imposing an educational straitjacket on our young people. It has become big brother - the Orwellian original, not its mind-numbing successor, part of the same dispiriting system.

Zoë Pilger has just completed her A-levels

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