Examinations and Ticky Tacky

Argus title : Exams help destroy joy of learning

It’s half term, so I don’t want to spend as much time as I usually do writing this column. My daughter’s also preparing for school examinations.

My mother used to feed us fish and raisins at exam time. She’d read somewhere that it was “good for the brain”. She was right about the fish, though I think a crash diet of it probably did little good.

I imagine there are probably parents right now in Sussex feeding fish to their children. “Ah Mum, I can’t eat mackerel” “Go on, get it down you. Oily fish is best for your brain.”

All over Brighton & Hove there are parents urging their children to sleep or wake up, work harder or rest. There are long queues in Sainsbury’s – not just because it’s half term but because the young people who’d normally cover holiday shifts are at home studying.

Instead of enjoying the holiday many families are engulfed in anxiety. Young people who hope to do well spend hours in revision while others who fear failure lapse into despair or feign indifference.

I used to do well at junior school. I learned easily and exams were no problem. I barely noticed them. As time went on, though, I began to hate them.

In those early days I’d leap out of bed wondering what I would learn that day. Learning seemed to me like walking into an enchanted forest. There’d be the trees and lakes I recognised and things I’d never seen before.

There’d be fish like plants and people like animals and stars and suns and hints of things not of this world. And all the time there was the excitement of knowing that new things were there waiting to be discovered.

As time went on though, learning became less like a magic forest and more like a managed pine wood. By the time I reached secondary school everything grew in straight lines. There was a little shadow and a very little light, no mystery and no discovery – just a dull route-march through undergrowth.

As the years went by I trudged through ever decreasing woodland, as more and more trees were felled. Soon the remaining brushwood was torched. By the time I left school I was on scorched earth. Of course, I failed university entrance.

Looking back, this was because everything was focussed on examinations. We had to learn this, but not that, because although it was interesting it wouldn’t be in the exams. No one learned anything for wisdom or the joy of it.

In June 1966, the day before a big biology exam I went with my father to hear Senator Bobby Kennedy, the former Attorney General of the United States, speak at Durban’s University of Natal. It was two years before he was assassinated. It was the most significant visit of any US politician during the Apartheid era.

We couldn’t get in so we joined the heaving crowd outside the hall and watched as he arrived, leaning from a limousine and shaking hands as he went. Outside the hall there were more Black people than white. Many were domestic servants with little or no education.

Some people scrambled into trees and hung in branches to get a better view. Mostly, we stood silently in order to hear as the speech was relayed through crackling loud speakers set in trees outside the building.

I felt very happy that night. I failed my Biology exam, but I didn’t mind. I could hear the sound of the forest again.

Unlike most of the girls in my class I didn’t get a degree at Natal University. I didn’t start passing exams again until years later when I graduated from Sussex University. After that I completed two post-graduate degrees.

Sussex University had then – and has still – a proud record of accepting unqualified mature students. As an unqualified applicant, I had to write an essay, sit an exam and have an interview before I was accepted.

I remember my essay was on DH Lawrence, an author I loathe. Rodney Hillman interviewed me, though sadly he never taught me. I still have the letter he sent me offering me a place, dog eared and worn.

Sussex University still accepts over 400 new mature applicants each year (around 25% of the total intake). Nowadays, many have qualified via specially designed access courses in further education colleges, but some still make it via the essay and interview route. Neither way is easy.

Mature students generally do well. While seventeen year olds can often be pressurised into courses they don’t want to do, mature students tend to have a clearer idea about the direction they wish to go. As Matt Cowan, at the University of Sussex Admissions Office says “Mature students are generally very focussed and although study isn’t necessarily easy for them, they do tend to use all the learning support available to them.”

Despite the flexibility of the U.K. university system and the existence of the Open University, which allows students to study by correspondence and the internet, most parents, students and young people remain fixated on university study at 18 or 19.

The government too seems obsessed with getting ever increasing numbers of young people into further education, without any certainty that there is value to them being there at that time in their lives.

The one thing most teachers, parents and students throughout the country can agree upon is that our young people are tested too much. There clearly remains a need to raise and monitor standards – particularly given a context in which, for many years, large numbers of children have been leaving school unqualified, illiterate or innumerate.

However, this is not best achieved by state examinations and league tables – particularly for children under 15.Now the whole educational system is dominated by examinations. And cheating has become a major problem. Whether this takes the form of ‘assistance’ by anxious parents or teachers or lifting essays off the internet, it does little to educate children and nothing to improve standards.

All students need to be tested, but this can be done internally and continuously, in such a way that student anxiety is lessened and opportunities of cheating reduced.

I sat behind a group of young secondary students in the bus the other day and listened as they discussed forthcoming exams. They talked obsessively about the grades they’d get and whether or not they’d receive prizes.

Others were full of bravado saying they had no intention of working hard. They ‘knew’ they weren’t going to do well so they weren’t going to bother. All of them seemed very able.

I left the bus feeling very sad and, once again, with the smell of scorched earth in my nostrils.

I found my self humming the 1960s song “Little Boxes”. It was one of the first U.S. folksongs to express the rebelliousness of the time, rejecting the suffocating educational and social conformity of the 1950s.

It went like this:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf-course,
And drink their Martini dry,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

If there are any school students reading this article, they probably think they shouldn’t, and ought to be revising. To them I’d simply say, work hard but don’t fret. If you do well that’s great. But if you don’t, there’s almost always another time to do things and another route to where you want to go.

Exams are just ticky tacky. Learning is about wisdom and joy and no one has the right to set limits to them.

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