Extreme Education

With the new GCSE system about to take full effect, and the top mark (now a ‘9’) reserved for only 3% of the country, we have to ask ourselves – has testing in this country gone too far? Along with funding cuts for teachers, and rigorous testing beginning at an ever earlier age, it begs the question if we’re teaching our children that ‘good grades’ are more important that imparting knowledge and the joy of learning.

Michael Gove is a polemic figure. His major reconfiguration of the British education system began in 2010, and in less than a month one of his most controversial new systems will come into effect – the replacement of A*-G grades with 9-1 marks for GCSEs. What’s the problem with this, you may ask? He’s only replacing letters with numbers, no big deal. Ah, if only. His new marking scheme has only JUST been formalised, leaving little to no time for teachers to be aware of, and coach students to achieve, the best grades possible. Moreover, his form of rigorous testing will see only a handful of students in the country able to reach the ‘top grades’, even if they are gifted. With exams such as English poetry now being ‘closed-book’, we will see even SEND(special educational needs and disabilities) students unable to use un-annotated scripts, supposedly in the name of ‘rigour’. What does this achieve? Students who will feel like they have ‘failed’, simply because neither they, nor their teachers, have had time to adapt to a new, unclear system.

Unfortunately, it is not just GCSE students who have to bear the burden of such tough testing. With SAT testing in primary schools conditioning students from an early age to quash creativity in the name of giving the ‘correct’ or ‘highest-scoring’ answer, many young children are joining secondary school with no idea how to approach their subjects. Whilst it is great that an 11 year-old might know what a fronted adverbial is, the inability to use creativity to problem-solve, or to learn without the strict framework of a marking scheme can be of great detriment to their educational careers. As your school life progresses, and perhaps slides onto university life, the ability to think for yourself outside of the ‘model answers’ your teachers may give you is vital. If we begin rigorous testing from such a young age, we not only remove room for creativity, we convert learning into a task, or a tool only needed to pass exams. Where’s the fun in that?

The students are not the only ones who bear the brunt of this stress, of course: the teachers experience it too. On top of the strain of constant testing, and the stress of new exam systems coming into play, major cuts to funding are limiting the tools teachers have to confront these challenges. If we travel back to 2005, teaching assistants were plentiful – they were there to help with SEND students, students with behavioural issues, or students with limited English skills. Funding for these assistants has now been cut to the point where they are as rare unicorns in your local woods. Teachers’ time and energy is now being spread so thinly that the ability to give every student the attention they need to thrive is almost impossible – yet we still expect them the pass even more ‘rigorous’ exams. Moreover, funding for the arts has been reduced in order to focus on ‘core’ subjects such as Maths and English, meaning those students who do not do so well in traditional subjects will have no outlet to thrive and flourish in areas such as dance and drama, as the government do not deem these to be ‘worthy’ subjects. Do we really want a country of identikit children that have been ground down and moulded into educational robots who can pass a Maths exam, but can let loose and move freely, or express themselves in a way that feels natural to them? I certainly don’t.

It’s always been my view that education should be formed of the three ‘E’’s: excitement, enjoyment and exchange. However, we leave no room for these if we fill all this space with one single ‘E’ – exams. Gove and his cabinet put forward that the new ‘rigour’-based educational system will inspire excellence, yet expects this excellence to be achieved amidst extreme funding cuts, and it a very specific framework that not all students, or teachers, will be able to fulfil. In my view, there is only one ‘E’ that I would use to describe a system where only exams and certain skills are prized above the enjoyment of learning – enough is enough.