Dani Garavelli: Education is a by-product of the push for A grades
EARLY last week, all around my neighbourhood, teenagers could be seen gazing anxiously out of windows or pacing their driveways, waiting for the postman to deliver the envelope which would determine their futures.
Like our Olympians, who dedicate themselves to their sport in the hope of a place on the podium, this was the moment Scottish school pupils had spent the last four or five years of their lives preparing for; thousands of hours of hard work and self-sacrifice invested in a single piece of paper. Like our Olympians, they too surpassed all expectations. Statistics show this has been another record-breaking year, with more passes and A grades achieved than ever before.
How galling it must have been then, for them to realise that – even as our sportsmen and women were being garlanded for their success – their more modest triumphs were being greeted with a degree of scepticism, even scorn. When they opened their newspapers the following day, it was to be met – not by proclamations of a glorious new era of academic excellence – but by sneering insinuations that their trumping of previous years’ achievements was due not to their intelligence and commitment, but to the gradual dumbing down of the examination papers.
Although these allegations surface every year, there is little hard evidence to support them. Hardly any research has been done comparing today’s examination papers to those set a generation ago. And if it is possible for elite athletes to improve their physical performances generation to generation then why shouldn’t it be possible for the academically-gifted to sharpen their mental prowess? Indeed, it has long been established that IQs rose throughout the 20th century – a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect – so doesn’t it stand to reason that grades should be inflating at approximately the same rate?
As with elite athletes, today’s school pupils operate in an increasingly competitive environment. They know they need to eclipse the records set by previous intakes if they want to stand out from the crowd and they work harder than their parents did to achieve success. Today’s pupils also benefit from advances in technology. Where 20 years ago, researching a particular topic might involve days at the local library, a wealth of information is now accessible at the click of a button. Revision aids, past papers and sample essays are all freely available on the internet. With all these resources at their disposal, why wouldn’t they be smarter, better-informed and more capable than their predecessors?
The flaw in this theory is that employers and institutes of further education are reporting no such gains in young people’s cognitive abilities. On the contrary, some universities have seen such a decline in written English, they have been forced to offer courses in grammar and spelling to first years. Employers, for their part, complain about a lack of self-discipline and initiative. And how else can the disparity between rising grades and the apparent inadequate skills of young people be explained other than by the fact that the exams are now less challenging?
One plausible alternative is that, in their desperation to move up the league tables, schools are focusing more of their energy on improving grades and less on delivering a good all-round education. Where a generation ago, the role of exams was to assess how effectively skills had been learned and information disseminated, they are now seen as an end in themselves. The extent to which this attitude now permeates society was brought home to me recently when my eldest son told me he was looking forward to starting fourth year – despite the hard slog that lies ahead – because sitting his intermediates (and then Highers) was the “point” of his time at secondary school. Even supposing his take on education isn’t as utilitarian as it sounds, I have no doubt both he – and the school – will measure his success by the number of A grades he achieves and not on the passion engendered in him for any particular subject.
In their pursuit of good results – results which are demanded as much by parents as by external assessors – schools focus heavily on developing exam technique. In some subjects, pupils are given rigid templates for answering specific types of questions. In others, such as foreign languages, answers can, apparently, be learned by heart, thus reducing the need to build up a large vocabulary, conjugate a verb or understand sentence construction.
These techniques are demonstrably effective in delivering a good pass rate, but they stifle pupils’ creativity and actively prevent them thinking for themselves. Spoon-fed in this way, it’s little wonder drop-out rates at university, where students are thrown back on their own resources, are so high. Or that employers find school leavers lack wider life and problem-solving skills.
In the next few years, Standard Grades and Intermediates will be replaced by new national exams and, though teachers have railed against the timescale for their introduction, there seems to be cautious optimism that they will promote a more holistic style of education. While today’s pupils are to be lauded for doing so well – and commiserated with on the lack of opportunity that awaits them – it would be good to see a return to the days when learning was valued for its own sake, and not viewed as the by-product of producing a satisfactory set of exam results. «
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east