Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Annual Exam Jamboree Falls Flat in 2012.

News that GSCE results have been downgraded in 2012, apparently on the instruction of Education Secretary Michael Gove,  has led to widespread condemnation from all those upset that exams have seemingly got "harder" for no legitimate reason other than posing as being "tough" and upgrading the status of the exams.

Critics have accused Gove of playing politics and ruining students employment prospects ( though with mass youth unemployment at present that might be one way of "managing expectations" ). Then again this follows years of using educational grades as a form not of educational attainment but social engineering.

There have been years of grade inflation in a way that effectively politicised what were once a routine examination into a principle under the Blair regime of being ever more "dizzy with success" and the notion of "education, education, education" and to get more students into "higher education".

That happened in the 1990s as old polytechnics were converted under John Major's government in the 1990s into universities and the freeing up of "higher education" establishments into offering more consumer choice in degrees from golf course management to other ones less practical and derided as "Mickey Mouse" degrees.

The stupidity of downgrading the grades before the exam results were released by Michael Gove, rather than setting out to make them harder from the beginning of the academic year is just one decision among many which as stupid as inflating them in the first place.

The next form of stupidity that ought to have stopped some years ago is the annual kitschfest of televising students leaping for joy when they "get those grades". That's good for them, perhaps, but it just does not deserve the amount of hype heaped up on it every year as though it were the X Factor or any other banal talent show.

Exams have been watered down. It is only necessary to compare an O Level paper from the 1970s with a GCSE one from the past two decades to see that. Exams have actually become far more a test of just passing an exam than they were before. No doubt in the name of being "inclusive".

A Levels are a case of that too. Take history. When perusing an A Level history paper from the 1970s one would confront austere 25 mark essay titles with challenging statements such as "The Restoration failed . Discuss " or "In the end Cromwell was sitting on bayonets and nothing else"

By the 1990s any A Level question on the Stuart period would be broken down into easier 3 part stages starting off with a picture and asking the student to comment on what he saw in it and to evaluate a few sources in which the point of using knowledge recall to answer a provoking question was entirely excluded

Far from being "parroting" information ( as the new A Levels require ) the old A Levels required the student to do what he would be expected to do at university which is to stake out his own case and answer the question as concisely and directly as possible with recourse to facts and analysis.

This was a test of mental stamina and time management as well as testing to see whether the student could stick to answering the question set directly and not waffling about anything that did not argue a case. That principle was no doubt regarded as too unpleasant and so ditched.

Trendy educationalists espousing supposedly "left wing" concepts of education have actually contributed far more to downgrading the status of both the old O and A Levels to to mere knowledge reproduction and the actual teaching of history to merely spotting what questions are going to come up.

More emphasis in the past was given to the teaching of history as a subject for two years after which there was an exam that would test the students breadth of knowledge and how he had, in conjunction with the teacher's lessons, read on the subject and was encouraged to do so.

I remember my A Level years with fondness. I had to learn how to read entire books on the Stuarts, such as those of Christopher Hill, Conrad Russell and the discussions different historians had on the English Civil Wars or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms so I could genuinely form my own opinion on them.

The idea now of parroting information reduced subjects to a meaningless task and the fact the subject on the exam happens to be about history seems irrelevant as it might just as well be an exam on flat pack furniture assembly or the corporate policy of McDonald's restaurants.

Even if that last idea was intended to be satirical, I have heard that McDonald's are indeed seeking to offer  equivalents to the old exam qualifications and that Pearson education is going to enter "the market" by providing degrees. Maybe the crude utilitarian view of education is the future.

It doesn't bode well for the idea of independent critical thinking but more towards the idea that education is their to discipline minds in a very narrow sense. Exams are about that, of course, but it seems to me that they used to be part of a broader attempt at providing a true education.

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