Kirsty Gunn: Education is about more than cramming for exams

Just when the weather starts to get nice, exam time comes round again (Picture: Getty)
Just when the weather starts to get nice, exam time comes round again (Picture: Getty)
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Exams are in the air! Swotting for them. Sitting them. Marking them. Whether or not we’re students or teachers, it’s still the case that just when things are starting to warm up a bit, there’s some sunshine about and our minds are starting to turn towards summer and holidays, that’s when exam time comes around.

And doesn’t it remind us all of our long-lost youth? My daughter called me from The Meadows the other day, where, it seemed to her, the entire student body of Edinburgh University were out either staring at sheaves of paper and hoping it counted as revision, or picnicking in the sunshine, party-style, having just come out of their last round of two essays of 40 per cent each, please, and one of 20 per cent, 30 pages of multiple choice and “don’t turn over your papers until I give the word”.

There’s no in between. It’s either heads down in Coles Notes, or faces up towards all available sunshine. Yes. It’s that time of year for sure.

As my husband said to our second daughter, who’s still at school and envying her older sister’s end-of-term mood, “things haven’t changed that much since our day”. And you know, despite the shocking dinosaur-like lumber to his remark, the sheer vintage cast of it – he’s kind of right. Katherine was larking about with friends, having broken up for the start of exams and was in that awful fake holiday mood you get when you know you have something hideously responsible to do – but not just now.

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For all the changes that have taken place in education – the increased focus on using science-based templates to achieve certain kinds of results in humanities subjects; the lack of funding for arts and practice-based disciplines such as music and fine art and drama; the commodification of education that is turning universities into businesses, students into customers, and so on and so on – still, that pit-in-the-stomach exams feeling stays with us, as though revising for maths and English and biology were yesterday.

No doubt there is a lot about assessment that’s important. In the end, exams should test for gumption and preparation skills and confidence under pressure and time management, as much as they look out for how much we know about Venn diagrams or Voltaire. And all kinds of aspects of our work and professional lives can be versions of sitting exams – whether it’s gearing up for a presentation in front of senior colleagues, or planning an activity that we’re not that keen on but know we have to go through with nevertheless. Whatever the reason, the self-discipline involved in managing information loads and revision schedules is generally a good thing, for many of us, and helps us function fully and creatively and productively.

But we must always remember to see these kinds of results-driven activities in a wider context. Telling our children that exams are only part of the educational story is important. Knowing that they’re not the be-all and end-all, even more so.

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In London, two young men have set out on a mission to help children understand their potential by reminding them of just how important they are, before exam results and intelligence tests and all the other criteria that’s pushed onto kids these days has its way.

Henry Faber and Walter Kerr used to be tutors to the kinds of hot-housed children whose parents will push and push for top results no matter what the cost – not only in pounds and pence but in their offspring’s well-being too. However they have changed their ways and set up a mentoring programme, a very different kind of educational support. “How do we make children more adaptable?” asks Walter Kerr. “It’s something we discuss every day. It comes down to building confidence and perspective.”

The pair don’t believe children reach their full potential by having their education managed by constant goal-setting and prescription, and compare themselves to “guides” more than teachers. It’s catering to individual needs and strengths, this approach, and the very opposite to a crammer or a tutor or sitting old exam papers over and over and over again, having some jolly young person who’s not much older than you giving ideas about your intelligence and how best it might work. It’s about showing how academic subjects can also be accommodated to the individual, rather than it always being only the other way around.

In Scotland, another kind of self-styled “outsider” educationalist – as he puts it – is Dr Robin Scott, someone I’ve been in communication with since starting to write this column. Robin is a former graduate volunteer at primary schools where he worked in a support and advisory capacity for 25 years, helping to devise new strategies to help with the sorts of retention of numbers and sequences that are still, despite computers, necessary for “fluency” in numerate subjects and related activities. “Automaticity is defined as: The instant recall of previously learned number-facts/bonds without any conscious effort,” writes Robin. Without it, he goes on “number fluency is very likely never to be achieved.”

His Memorandum on Pre–Adolescent Education makes for informed and detailed reading, and constitutes a strong case for the need to inculcate in children feelings of self-worth and creative and/or intellectual confidence in the years between birth and up to around 11 or 12 years old. Memorising is part of that, his work reminds me – whether it’s sequences or poetry or sonatas or songs.

It used to be part of all our childhood once, and gave us a feeling of a rich, inner resource.

Childhood sits there at the back of our lives for all of us, yet, as the critic and poet Michel Hulse wrote recently, few people seem to feel its presence. Hulse was writing about the great Irish-born New Zealand poet Alan Curnow whose own early years in Belfast were always a territory he could return to and reinhabit, as though he never left. It’s a lovely idea, that – yet so effectively have politicians gone about the task of educating our children, and training we parents in its rubrics, that we’re in danger of closing ourselves down to the richness of a key time in our human development. Young lives are extraordinary. Let’s learn to

nurture all of our children, in all the ways we can.