England’s punitive examination system is only good for one thing: to preserve privilege | George Monbiot
OWhy do we do this to our children? As the review period begins, the question hangs over millions of homes. NHS figures suggest that 17% of 6-16 year olds in England now suffer from a “probable mental disorder”, and the incidence has increased by 50% since 2017.
In a survey According to England’s Children’s Commissioner, two-thirds of children ranked homework and exams as their main cause of stress. Responding to a survey by the National Education Union, 73% of teachers said they thought their pupils’ mental health had deteriorated since the government introduced its ‘reformed’ GCSEs, which put more weight on final exams and less to courses and other assessments.
These reforms, imposed on schools by Michael Gove against Expert advice, may have contributed to the shocking finding by the OECD in 2019 that, of the 72 countries in which the life satisfaction of 15-year-olds was assessed, the UK came in 69th. Our children’s zest for life has suffered the biggest drop of any country since 2015, when the GCSE reforms came into force. If we want to subject young people, already so vulnerable, to the extreme stress and anxiety of exams, there must be a very good reason. So what is it?
Given the importance of the subject, it is remarkable how thin and infrequent the government’s justifications are. For a senior government official to attempt to justify the English system, one must go back to an article by former Education Secretary Damian Hinds, which he wrote for The Sunday Times in 2019. While he admitted that exams were stressful and had “a disproportionate effect on the well-being of young people”, he asserted, without any supporting evidence, that this stress was important for “building character” and “developing the resilience and coping mechanisms needed to cope with difficult experiences”. In fact, the vast majority of people who suffer mental health disorders develop them as children or young adults. Great stress in childhood is likely to make us less resilient, not more.
Hinds’ article – simple-minded, hackneyed, cavalier – presents a solid argument, but not the one he intended. It shows that you can pass your exams, enter a top university and become a minister, but fail to meet the basic standards of research, insight, originality, reasoned argument, empathy or humanity. But at least he tried. While the current education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has insisted we come back to the exam pattern that was suspended during the pandemic, he made no attempt to explain why.
What exams measure is exam ability. Although they can classify certain skills, such as retaining facts and performing linear tasks under pressure, these are only a small part of the equipment a person needs to navigate the world. Many of the challenges we face are complex, long-lasting and multi-layered. They might require social and emotional intelligence rather than the ability to gather facts, and might be best overcome through collaboration rather than competition.
But performance on these narrow, unrepresentative tests can determine the entire future course of a student’s life. Some will be marked failures, creating a self-image that will never be erased. I have met children who are brilliant in a particular way, but fail in exams. I’ve met adults who, often after long struggles with self-esteem and social condescension, do beautifully despite their low grades. I’ve met others whose obvious talents go unrecognized because they never overcome the stigma.
It is not the child who makes the system fail. It is the system, seeking to lock everyone in the same box, which lets the child down. It pathologizes diversity. For example, as The ADHD Explosion, by clinical psychologist Stephen Hinshaw and health economist Richard Scheffler, suggests that a massive increase in ADHD diagnoses appears to be linked to increased high-stakes testing. As examinations become more important, parents have more incentive to seek the diagnosis and acquire the drugs that can improve their child’s performance. At the same time as a report According to education professor Merryn Hutchings, more children are likely to exhibit ADHD symptoms in a stressful, channeled school system that forces them to sit still for long periods of time and reduces opportunities for creative, physical and hands-on work.
Exams distort all aspects of education. It’s not just about ‘teaching until the test’ and training students to rote learning rather than encouraging deep understanding, independence and creative thinking. They also ensure that the curriculum is narrow and compartmentalized, enclosing testable knowledge in artificial boxes. This compartmentalization, coupled with the ridiculously early specialization of the English education system, ensures that by late adolescence we can barely understand ourselves, let alone the world into which we emerge.
So what are exams for? Privilege preserved. Privilege loves competition because it can always be rigged. Private schools and parents who pay tuition can afford to impose necessary demands on a child, even one whose mind seeks to travel in other directions.
If there is a better case for exams, this government has not done it. They inflict pain and distress on our children, shrink their minds and force them to conform. They transform education, which should be rich in the joy of discovery, into instrumental misery. They exacerbate injustice, exclusion and inequality. Q: What would a fair, balanced and useful education look like in the 21st century? A: Nothing like that.