Tuesday, 18 August 2009

This week...

... is the week A-level results come out. It's been a few years since anybody close to me was worrying about their results, but it's impossible to ignore the event, and the inevitable debate about standards slipping and dumbing down (which is always discussed in articles beginning just this way, and the authors always acknowledge that it's a cliche by now, but you have to have something to talk about in August so they write the article anyway). What puzzles me, as someone who took A-levels (one, two, three, four...) five years ago now, is that there's any debate at all. A-levels aren't just getting easier. They are easy, full stop. Too easy. At some point they'll be so easy that they can't get any easier, and we'll have to find something else to talk about in the summer.

That point is not far away.

I don't think anyone except Government ministers and current A-level students really thinks otherwise. Studying for A-levels consists of learning to hit the targets set out in the mark scheme - if you know the right phrases to use, you will get full marks. It is absolutely as simple as that. The system encourages limited, formulaic thinking; obedience to conventional wisdom and dogma; a simplistic attitude to the world and a scornful attitude to the process of learning. When I was at school, the hopeless state of the education system made me angry; it endangered my chances for the future because I knew that the privately-educated people I would be competing with for university places would have opportunities I couldn't dream of. I was so angry!

Now the whole thing just makes me sad. You only get to go to school once as a teenager - learning about the world, finding out what you care about and what you want to understand. Of course people can go back to learning in later life, but it isn't the same experience, the same time in your life. That seven-year window, that opportunity for real education, is just wasted on mark schemes and target phrases and form-filling and multiple-choice questions. People who are capable of learning to think are only taught to learn how to do exams. They're not even taught to spell so that they can at least appear well-educated. And they work themselves into the ground and study like crazy and panic about their results - and it's all wasted effort, because the knowledge they acquire isn't worth having, and the results don't mean anything. It's all wasted time.

It breaks my heart a little.