The result of exams

The percentage of A grades students have received has again risen, for the umpteenth year in a row; yet employers and colleges have long been complaining that there are too many A grade students who can’t read, write or count and that they can’t distinguish the top students from the rest. Why is this? and who is to blame?

Are the exams easier as is often cited? I don’t think so. I do however think that the course work is geared towards passing the exam, with all the extra but essential information to truly understanding the subject left out. Tony Blair has managed to increase the pass rate, which shows (if you want to be gullible about it) that kids today are smarter and justify the results. Getting more students passing the exams means schools getting a higher rating; which means that they have a little more autonomy in choosing to heat the building or fix the windows with the little money they get.

As for the students, I feel for them, after putting in a few years of hard work to then sit and pass an exam only to be doubted of its value is tough. None of this is their fault; after all they don’t choose the education mark they will be judged on, like a train, it can’t be blamed if the track leads to nowhere, all it can do is it’s best to get there on time.

Because there are now more A grade students than ever, there are proposals to add an A* and A** grade to show the highest achievers. This is starting to get ridiculous. Since education people decided years ago that any mark of “failure” was damaging to the morale and future performance of children, they have been finding all sorts of ways to make sure EVERYONE passes, whether it merits or not. At this rate it will soon be impossible to fail an exam, even if stay you off for a couple of years having attended no classes, done no work, enter the exam room, spell your name wrong and don’t write anything else on the paper.

Being told you’re a “failure” sets you up for “future failure”? No, it gets a sense of reality to your abilities and where you can improve as well as where you’d do better just to give up as it’s clearly not “your thing”. Everyone can’t be perfect at everything; it’s just not possible. Failing at one thing can be a good thing, as it allows you to drop that idea and narrow down where your strengths are; which in turn makes you better at what you’re good at and more focused in the job market.

The result of everyone being told how wonderful they are regardless of how inept the reality is, is the “reality” shows like X Factor or Pop Idol; people who genuinely believe they are God’s gift to entertainment and are genuinely stunned when the response to their tone deaf, out of time demolition of an easy to sing tune is “don’t give up your day job”. The usual sulky and most imaginative retort after the begging and crying is “I WILL be famous!!!” as they stomp off like a 5 year old feeling hard done by yet determined that the next reality show will see their real talents.

I have to say however, the early rounds are hilarious as 1000’s of no hopers humiliate themselves on TV. It’s car crash TV with a never ending line of willing victims. While this is great to laugh at; as a cross section of our young people in the job market it’s pathetic.

Is teaching getting better? Teaching has certainly evolved from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Then there was reasonable calm in the classroom, with the odd outbreak of an incident, and the teaching at least had a chance of getting through to pupils. Then the teachers had to cover a decent amount of the subject because they didn’t have much of an idea what was going to be in the exam, so they had to get their pupils to a level of understanding of the subject that they could work it out.

Now it’s a daily exercise in riot control, where the teacher is powerless and the odd sentence in a lesson can be heard. Even those pupils who realize that getting through school with some sort of result and knowledge is going to benefit them in the future don’t stand much of a chance of learning anything. So the idea that results are up because teaching is better is laughable.

Can’t the employers and colleges weed out the illiterate applicants? Of course they can; that’s why some smart bugger invented aptitude tests. After all why should they pick up the slack from an education system who’s primary duty is to prepare young people for the jobs market? For some low paid jobs those ability’s don’t matter; after all what does it matter if the guy serving you at McDonalds can spell his name without studying his name badge. As long as he don’t wipe his bum with your burger he’s qualified.

Colleges on the other hand need a certain number of people on their courses to continue to offer that course. Around 10 years ago I was on a music course at a college which is the living embodiment of that principle. Most of my classmates were there to avoid getting a job, and seemingly picked the course with a drawing pin and a blindfold. The rest deserved a better course. All of us were being passed for work we hadn’t done; presumably to make sure the course had a low drop out rate, and high pass rate. I started off with the best of intentions but group assignments undid me.

After you discount the unemployable people, what do you do with them as a society? They need some money to live on, you either continue to feed them with it, or they will find illegal ways to get it. They need somewhere to live. Many are not only educationally challenged, but socially challenged. They go everywhere with an attitude, and treat everyone with contempt. They are a lifetime claimant of Jobseekers Allowance (interrupted by bouts of prison time and toothache), with little hope of ever being employed for any length of time.

In short society has failed them, excluded them and is reaping the results in higher crime rates and taxes to pay for their benefits. If the education system was doing it’s job properly, the vast majority would leave school ready for the workplace with practical skills to compete in a global job market and have a good chance of making a positive impact on the world around them. Exam results are meaningless if the skills are missing.

The cumulative effect of all of this is a growing nation of unwilling, unskilled workers being passed over because they don’t have the skills to EU workers coming in who want to work, and are willing to do the job well. And we still complain that “they are all taking our jobs”. Simple answer; if we weren’t so incapable of doing them ourselves, we’d at least be competing with our EU brothers and sisters, as things stand you can’t blame employers for wanting to keep their company solvent and competitive. Do we expect them to employ people who don’t want to work, are unable to communicate effectively and expect them to still compete in the global community?

This is a sign of the times, style over substance. Thank you JFK; your legacy lives on. When politicians can fudge the figures to show how good they are, when the reality is VERY different and get re-elected do we care about the detail? Or are we waiting for someone decent to come along and do the right thing by our kids, employers and educators and the best of a bad lot is the one already in office.

Look at other countries as examples. Polish people educated under the communist system were given practical life skills which has resulted in a highly skilled and motivated workforce. Poles have arrived in the UK and shown us Brits how things should be done. In India kids are desperate to go to school and learn, and despite the lack of facilities and access they are producing a very highly skilled workforce which we in the west now see as a threat. Of course it’s a threat, but it’s the natural evolution of a global community. When you are competing worldwide you have to compete on all levels, not pick and choose what’s fair and what’s not. Is it any wonder employers are looking overseas for their workforce?

[I’ve added another related blog called “the purpose of education” on 18th April 2007]

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6 Responses to “The result of exams”

  1. Rory Says:

    I think you’re wrong on this point:

    “Are the exams easier as is often cited? I don’t think so.”

    I think they are… 😉

  2. Dirk Gently Says:

    The reason for that judgment is the funnel effect.

    If you have two years to study for exams and chose to study TEN subjects, knowing that you’ll only be tested on one of those ten, you devote less time to each and as a result your overall knowledge will be much better, but less specialized and your exam standards will be lower.

    The other nine you studied with equal time and attention are no use in the exam, but provide an invaluable platform for background to really understanding the subjects.

    If on the other hand you use those two years to study ONE subject, you know it pretty well, and can hit a higher standard on exam day….which means the exam is still the same, your understanding of the subject is a lot less, but you still achieve the high marks.

    You are funneled down the path the exam requires, being taught only the relevant subjects to the exams, to ensure you get a high mark…..which opens employment / further education doors for you……and keeps your school high on the league tables, which in turn affects the finances of the school.

  3. Rory Says:

    I don’t disagree. Do you consider the national curriculum to be a part of the problem?

  4. Dirk Gently Says:

    The national curriculum as it is, is part of the problem. I see the need to have a standardized level of overall education…which means that having a national curriculum is vital…….it’s the contents which need to change.

    The reliance on exam results, school league tables etc also needs to be rethought. Targets are there to help motivate towards a goal…..for that they need to be realistic, attainable and fair.

    The way schools get their definition now is by their position in a league table which tells the world if they are a “good” school or not.

    This is based on exam results, not on improvements…..it takes no account of a school with no resources punching above it’s weight and giving more of the lower achievers a better head start in life…..all it cares for are figures on exam papers.

    Since this dictates the school’s funding..which in turn dictates EVERYTHING the school aims to achieve, they have no choice but to use every trick they can short of giving the students the exact answers to the exact questions…..to make sure enough students get high enough marks.

    The natural solution to this is what we see now; teach the exam, not the subject.

    The purpose of the league table is not to help the schools, but to help the politicians. They want an easy to quote set of statistics to show how their input is improving (insert public service here). The reality of how these figures are calculated and the obsessive like focus those public services have to be on achieving it is damaging their ability to serve the public as they want and need to.

    I’m sure parents would rather have every school within traveling distance for their children to attend would provide a decent minimum standard of all round education….so that choice of school becomes a minor factor; than the popular schools getting all the funding because they are set up to jump through the right hoops, and get good exam results.

    It’s about focus. The focus needs to be on first accepting that not everyone wants or needs to go to university, that knowledge, understanding and experience are more valuable gifts to give a child than a piece of paper which means less and less each year. It needs to be on raising the lower end of the scale to bring up the minimum standards…..this ensures that EVERY child gets a chance…..not just those who are lucky enough to have gotten into the “good” schools as decided by a phony scale.

  5. Rory Says:

    While you can change the content of the National Curriculum how do you ensure that it is changed for the right reasons and not tinkered with by politicians or their appointees?

    Also, while the relatively new “value-added” figures for schools may meet your criteria for a measure of how much difference a school makes to educational outcomes – isn’t this measure open to manipulation and abuse also?

  6. Dirk Gently Says:

    You’re right, any figures are open to abuse and manipulation, specially by those who are trying to persuade the acceptance of a favorable impression to keep their jobs.

    In my opinion, a lot of these issues are caused by a series of pen pushers who are never on the front line of the services they set the rules for. I’d rather see an experienced head teacher advised by others who have direct educational experience make education policies……the same goes with all the public services.

    In many cases they choose what to measure, and how to measure them by what’s easy for the politicians to sell as quotes in the media, rather than on logical targets. People with direct experience in the industries would be able to set sensible goals to measure, which will actually help.

    When hospitals have to choose which patients to treat by the priority of making enough ticks on a target sheet rather than on medical need, there is something seriously wrong with the set up. This same set up seems to be all the way through our public services.


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