Half term has given me a chance to do a bit of catching up with what’s going on in the wider educational world.
The first one to catch my eye was the news that students at my alma mater have launched a petition to stop end of year exam results being displayed publicly. In my day, the only way you found out was to read the lists on the Senate House – and in addition, the results appeared in the national press (albeit in a minuscule font) and we mathematicians had the added privilege of having our finals results actually read out from the senate house before they chucked the lists into the crowd! Although there’s no doubt it was nerve-racking going to look at the boards, for me personally, the big issue about potentially messing up would be messing up, not that other people would see that I had. So my immediate reaction was, I’m afraid, to think “what a load of wimps” and “get a grip”!
Then I realised that I am probably a little conflicted on this…. I would never dream of expecting my pupils to cope with public display of their results, and indeed I always write their exam grade on an inside page in their paper so even the person they are sitting with doesn’t see it! Am I expecting kids I treat habitually with this sensitivity to deal happily with the macho approach beloved of Cambridge? When I think about it, I am aware that there are a number of people who develop mental health issues at university, and if this puts additional pressure on, that’s not good. And whilst I do feel your own assessment of your performance should be the one that matters principally, being realistic, that’s not how everyone feels. Maybe even Cambridge needs to be gentler with people sometimes…. though I still feel I learnt more (in the broader sense) from the rather tough and no mollycoddling approach than I would have otherwise.
Another interesting article – the outgoing Head of Wellington College commenting that independent schools are too obsessed with exam performance. First reaction to that …. well, who knew? Second one – well, I wonder where that comes from, then? We all know, I think, that a hefty proportion of parents who send their kids to independent schools have in mind for said kids to come out with a string of A* and a place at a top university. Such parents do not want a broad and balanced curriculum… at least, they only want it if it is compatible with the aforementioned exam and university success. If schools are to stop being exam factories, then they need to do a little more to stand up to parents, and invite them to consider other schools if they don’t like the educational ethos of the current one. That is easier to say than to do, of course – it is a very brave head who will risk a decline in numbers by such boldness – but things are not likely to change otherwise, I fear.
Then there was the emotively titled “Gove’s maths exams are too hard“. Not that he’s sitting them, of course (though wouldn’t you just love him to? His comments at one point where he appeared to think all the kids could be above average suggests mathematical skills would not be his strong point). It’s the revised GCSE due for first teaching from this September. And yes, it is too hard. We looked at the papers and thought they’d be great to give our very top students something to get their teeth into, but for the full ability range? They have to be joking. It’s not just that they are expecting the kids doing Foundation Tier to study substantially more and harder material, it’s that the questions on it are tougher too. It would be a very poor discriminator at the lower end – the grade boundaries would end up too close together, and careless mistakes and chance would play far too great a part. I’m all in favour of having something there to stretch the top candidates, but it should not be at the expense of the others – maybe a GCSE equivalent of the old Special Papers might be an option?