Exam changes – what they really mean
August 13th 2008
The season of school examination results is upon us. Within days politicians will be telling us how much better qualified is this year’s crop of students and sceptics will be telling us how less demanding these current exams are, with some justification – a physics teacher friend can show me O-level questions from over thirty years ago now masquerading as A-level questions. Another acquaintance, a lecturer in engineering, has to teach remedial maths to first year undergraduates with an A-level in the subject and employers continue to complain that young people lack literacy and numeracy skills. It is all enough to confuse and infuriate the most level-headed of teenagers.
Simplistic comparisons between generations of students are misleading. It is our expectations of students that have changed rather than the nature of young people, and the current generation are responding much as earlier generations would have done had they been confronted with O-levels rather than GCSEs. Our pupils are now expected to do different things. What is to the point is the matter of the skills and understanding that we expect of sixteen year-olds.
In my subject, English, reading and understanding and writing clearly and effectively are the key areas. With writing there has been less change; examiners now seem to seek a sympathetic understanding of what is being attempted by a writer rather than a clear and accurate rendition of ideas.
Reading for understanding has changed and the discipline of the summary or précis, of careful, accurate reading and understanding is now overshadowed by a concern with peripherals, the way a page is laid out, the use of headlines and gimmicks which can detract from what is actually being said. In some ways the analytic techniques encouraged are sound, but applied to visual distractions rather than what is actually said. This is misleading and reminds me of my daughter’s discovery with a GCSE special study, that a well-illustrated cover seems to count for as much as the content.
And it is this concern with peripherals, rather than what is actually said or spoken, dealing with attempts to enhance or distract from relevant and important ideas that worries me, especially as it has coincided with the era of spin, which of course is a kind of manipulation with words. Spin is intended to confuse and beguile us so that we find it more difficult to establish the essence of what is being said and to challenge what we think is being said. It is dishonest. Students are being taught to appreciate the embellishment of written information, for which there may be laudable reasons, the use of headlines and sub-headings for example, but without doing the harder and more important bit first – pursuing the truth – and then considering how truth can be manipulated or enhanced.
This was the strength of the O-level summary. I taught my students, and continued to teach my students, to identify just what were the points that a writer was making, or not making, starting with finding the main verb in each sentence. At the next stage I called upon the assistance of Peter Sellers with “Party Political Broadcast,” released in 1958 and my students would spend five minutes waiting with pencils poised for Seller’s grand politician to make a point, which of course he doesn’t; he would have provided great entertainment set up against a Jeremy Paxman. My students continued to appreciate the importance of this in all walks of life, its intellectual and economic importance; imagine not being able to précis an important document before sending it round for busy colleagues to consider. They even grasped old-fashioned clause analysis as an aid to identifying a writer’s point.
Students are still taught a sound basic approach to examining material – find examples of significant matter then explain them and their significance in the material under consideration – but they have been allowed to disregard the more difficult matter of truth in the pursuit of what attracts their attention more readily; story boards and advertisements, simplification and promotion rather than a considered and reflective response to the material.
The importance of all this should be self-evident. If nowhere else it lies in the continuing and overwhelming popularity of the tabloids expressed in the limited language of seven-year olds, after six or more generations of compulsory education. It lies too in the increasing distrust of politicians and our reluctance to trouble ourselves with voting in elections.
Perhaps we shall see the continued spread of the International Baccalaureate. The organisation is steadily winning the trust of students, teacher and universities. Its syllabuses, and the means by which students are examined, are settled between schools and the board, changes are permitted only at five year intervals, and there is not a politician in sight.