It’s that time of year again; A level results. Tomorrow the newspapers will be dominated by students hugging each other while clutching pieces of paper while columnists inside debate the pass rate and what this means, together with that perennial debate about whether exams are getting easier. A Level Day is an annual performance of course, with the encore of GCSE results to come a week later. The whole thing brings out mixed feelings in me – here’s why.
I got my A level results in 1999 – last century. The majority of the students celebrating (or of course not celebrating) today were either four or five when I got my results. So A Level Day is a reminder for me that every year that passes takes me further from my own teenage years.
It also takes me further from the time when I used to read the `dumbing down` articles with a sense of moral indignation and reminds me that my own views have changed. Not that I believe for one minute that exams are getting easier I hasten to add.
When somebody has worked for two years towards a result, when they’ve had the stress of having prepare themselves mentally for something, when they’ve had to deal with the feelings of self doubt and worry that come with any challenge – and they make the grade, of course they should be congratulated and allowed to celebrate their achievement. They were told what the target was, they worked for it, they’ve earned it.
And yet, and yet. I’ve fought that battle myself. I’ve sat exams. I’ve experienced all the feelingsthat go with it. However the battle comparison is apt; having returned from the war fourteen years ago I’m now wondering what the hell I was fighting for in the first place.
Some people are born strong, others may be physically weaker. Some people are musical, others tone deaf. Some can run fast, others have to stop for breath every few seconds. Some people are natural communicators, others (like me) are socially awkward. It’s what makes the fabric of humanity, we’re all told that. And oh yes, some people are academic, some people aren’t.
Michael Gove (one of the most dangerous members of a dangerous government) wants to increase the bar of academic standards and make exams ever more vigorous and demanding. To an extent he is right, the most able students in this country should be stretched to their full potential.
Read the papers tomorrow and you’d be left with the impression that every single 18 year old in the country is whooping with joy. Some older readers will think they all are. But you won’t see any pictures of people staring at Cs and Ds (a feeling I know all too well) and wondering what went wrong. So what, you might say, the sports pages focus on victors celebrating after all, not crestfallen losers. But academic success is not a competitive sport, unless you choose to treat it as such.
And you certainly won’t see those 18 year olds who didn’t get any A Levels at all for the simple reason they didn’t take any. Am I the only person who, on A Level Day, would like to hear from those who didn’t take the A Level route and find out why. Did they choose a more vocational course at 16? Did they go into employment at age 16 and if so what are their achievements and prospects two years on? Or did they drop out of the system a long time ago?
Gove is quite happy to talk about excellence in academic standards and pick fights with the teaching unions, however he and his party (and, to be fair, the opposition) are silent on those who, for whatever reason, didn’t make the academic cut.
I look at education in the UK and see everything that is wrong with my country. Some people respond well to being forced to sit at desks and concentrate; some don’t. Hard luck for them, that’s the way it is – never mind that at 14 they’re already disillusioned with the system and resigned to failure. At 16, once schooling ceases to be compulsory, they’re gone; the `lucky` ones into low paid jobs, others into street gangs because, quite frankly, there’s nowhere else to go (I won’t detail the cycle that follows as it’s obvious).
This system benefits nobody; not the non academic, not their academic bedfellows, certainly not teachers who spend as much time supervising as teaching. Would it not be far better to get those restless students out of the classroom and into supervised activities where they can burn off energy and learn skills that might be of some use in later life? The obvious benefit is that teachers would have more time to actually `teach` and the activities (for want of a better word) might be led by (for example) ex soldiers and retired footballers and thus bring boys* into contact with positive role models. There would be time for some academic lessons (maybe two hours in the morning, not five hours plus with homework to follow).
And `conventional` schooling need not be abandoned completely. How many teenagers have (again, for example) history lessons with sailing club after school? How many might prefer sailing lessons (learning teamwork and responsibility among other things) with history club after school? Is this really such a ludicrous idea? Definitely better than skipping history lessons to play with knives on the street.
But you won’t hear Gove or anybody else making such proposals. Why? Partly because anything aimed at getting kids off the street is going to sound all `hug a hoodie` and we couldn’t have that. It’s not a vote winner, the right wing press won’t like it. It’s so much easier to condemn people when they stand in the dock than wonder exactly how they got there in the first place.
I’ve tried to keep the personal to the end but I’m a C student. Two Cs at A Level, one in English Literature, one in History. I’d actually almost forgotten that the English was a D when I first got my results; it was raised following a re-mark (along with the rest of my English set). In mitigation, given that emotional issues meant I was barely at school during my A levels, my results look quite good in that context. I never went to university** (long story). I certainly never jumped for joy on receiving my results. I’ll admit it – when I see these glowing faces I do wonder what might have been.
I’ve spent my working life in retail (not a job I’d ever claim to love but I get by). I’ve written five novels (not to be confused with five good ones but they’re there). I’ve made my name in a few other fields. More to the point – during my A levels I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov having already read Crime And Punishment while awaiting my GCSEs results; I can smugly say that not many A students then and now could claim that. But I’m a C student – thankfully I’ve never let it get to me.
* This blog focuses more on boys than girls, possibly because I’m a boy as are most of my friends. The academic climate tends to reject boys more easily.
** I had one university interview after (with hindsight) a pointless year out. I shall happily go on record as saying that it was the most humiliating experience of my life and one of my ambitions is for the University in question (Leeds) to offer me an honorary degree. It would mean so much to me to be able to tell them exactly where they could stick it …