Friday, May 27, 2011


A rare emergence from hibernation for me, which just goes to show how strongly I feel about this matter.

I have just received the weekly newsletter from my younger son's school. Said son is in the throes of exams for the lower sixth form (the first of two years of non-compulsory further education which serve as a springboard for those who wish to go on to higher education).

The very first article in the newsletter focusses on the kids the year ahead of my son. In other words, those in the upper sixth. It includes the following:

Students seeking work or higher education places after Sixth Form have never before found the competition so tough. More students across the country are competing for fewer available places and many of our students must obtain A grades in a number of subjects (even A* in some cases) for university entry.
Our recent experience is that universities will not bend the requirements if students miss a grade. The need for students to revise really thoroughly has never been so vital.
It's all about grades! Other things get taken into consideration, sure, but only if you get the grades in the first place.

My son's results earlier in the year were very worrying. His teachers were at a loss: his homework is always submitted on time and is always 100% correct. But his exam results didn't even qualify for the word 'disappointing'. 'Terrifying' would be closer to the mark.

We are currently spending a fortune on private tutors in attempt to help this boy learn some exam skills, so that he can reproduce under exam conditions the levels of competency he demonstrates in the classroom. If he doesn't succeed at that, his lifelong career dreams will become even more difficult to achieve.

How can this be education?

William Nicholson wrote a trilogy called Wind on Fire. The first book starts off in this utterly ludicrous society in which people take regular assessments all the way through their lives. Where they live, what clothes they wear and every single factor of their lives is governed by the cumulative assessment scores of the family.

It is frightening how close we are to that. And I feel quite literally sickened as the parent of two sons who don't 'play the exam game' with any great skill. Nor can I help them there, because I have never been great shakes at it myself.

What kind of a dysfunctional society are we inflicting on these kids? And at what cost?


lizit said...

I've no idea what your son is hoping to do, but I have a son for whom exams are a complete no go area. He chose the vocational qualifications route based on assessment of coursework, resulting in equivalent of 3 A grades at A level. He postponed university application and has done a third year sixth in a different discipline and put in a very late (April) application for university for this autumn and is getting offers at the moment.
Sometimes worth considering alternatives - schools don't always know best or offer most appropriate ways forward, especially if rooted in academic traditionalism.

The upsycho said...

@lizit "schools don't always know best or offer most appropriate ways forward"... true that! And of course, neither do universities.

My son, since the age of three, has wanted to be an explosives demolitionist. He has based all his educational decisions on this one end goal.

In the past year, we have seen one door after another closing. The International Institute of Explosives Engineers that had previously offered him a gap year placement now claims to have no knowledge of any such offer, and to have no interest in making any such offer. We have been advised that explosives are expensive and increasingly rarely used.

Unless he can dramatically improve his exam results, he is unlikely to get a place at university, even supposing we could find someone to give us useful advice as to what course of study he should follow.

The thing is that he has such a sensible, practical head on his shoulders and, quite frankly, I'd rather have someone like that placing and handling explosives than someone who is able to answer theoretical questions in a sensory deprivation environment!

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Karyn,

Good to see you emerging!

I'm afraid it will continue to be like this all the way through formal "education". Exams will be a major part of most universities' assessment strategy.

It is crazy and unfair, I know, but that would be the case for most assessment systems where the end result must be objective, repeatable and simple to make judgements against.

Sounds like you're doing everything possible to help though.

Doug Belshaw said...

Unbelievable. You need to join us on the journey...

Harold Jarche said...

I know the Army can be a scary prospect today, but I learned a lot from my 25 years of military service. I understand that Ammo Techs form the bulk of personnel who become EOD Techs in the UK:
The Army is much more about getting things done than getting good marks.

Views from Malmesbury said...

Not a choice I'd personally want for my son, if I had one, but has he considered the Armed Forces? Would they offer on-the-job training? Or if not that sort of explosives, can he get an apprenticeship with a (construction/demolition?) company? Aren't apprenticeships meant to be the up and coming thing? He has my sympathy, as someone who could figure thngs out during class but couldn't remember things for exams. I hope something works out for him.

The upsycho said...

@Harold We have considered that, but the thought of his becoming a government-owned asset and being eligible for deployment into a war to which we are all ideologically opposed is a massive impediment to that route.

The upsycho said...

@Views Sorry - I only saw and published your comment after replying to Harold's. I didn't mean to look as if I were ignoring you. Same response applies.

Of course, it is his life, so the choice will be his, but he is fairly politically aware and not much in favour of several of the wars in which British armed forces are engaged.

Also, the fact that he is not a British national may have some bearing.

V Yonkers said...

It's the same in the US. My son scored in the top 90th percentile on his SAT's, 99th percentile for History which is what he wants to study, and applied to 16 colleges. There was only 3 points different between the top 16 students in his class, but because he was not in the top 5 he had trouble getting into school.

The thing is, he has 5 courses he took a the local university, was on the dean's list there, and then received an award for the best research paper (he shared this with one of his high school colleagues), but because he is still in high school, this did not count. He did get into a good school (but none of the ones top on his list).

Now I have to start worrying about my daughter who does NOT take tests like he does, is in an alternative project based school (where they did primary research on nano-technology which the researcher they worked with told the class that they had a much better understanding than his graduate students at the #1 rated nano school in the US), and wants to study the arts.

Then I have students in my classes that either 1) don't want to be in class but rather look at university as a time to get drunk or high for 4 years, 2) are unprepared for the critical thinking outside of the box needed in college (can't you just tell us what will be on the test and then test it? mentality) or 3) were told they were underachievers and are in a constant state of panic over their progress in class. The third group are the ones that are my best students and the most successful in college. Go figure. Something is wrong with the system.