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‘Tis the season for ‘examination-candidate bashing’!

As we approach examination season once more, yet again, as every year,  the media and the lay person conspire to contrast – negatively – the standards of education of a bygone era with those today.  I would argue that it is of no value to do so and indeed that doing so serves no useful nor, most importantly,  accurate purpose!

This is not the defensive rant of an examination teacher, although I have been that: indeed I have even held the accepted view regularly ‘yelled’ from the tabloid tops. Rather, I hope that experience and – stopping to think – (oops, is that allowed?)  make this the post of common sense.

I agree that there are certain standards which do not compare well with those of the past, prominent examples being spelling and basic grammar, as well as the ability to communicate effectively and accurately in writing.

But let’s look at the facts for a moment:

Once upon a time:

  • Not everyone went to school
  • Few people remained in school to examination level and many fewer to A’ and degree levels
  • Fewer subjects were studied, which meant more time was devoted to each subject (I had English lessons 6  times a week at what is now known as KS3, for instance, yet in my current school both GCSE Language and Literature are taught in 2.5 lessons a week.)
  • Taking each subject, and I’ll stick with English if I may, within this reduced time provision, far more needs to be covered than was ever the case in the past.  It is not enough to consider reading and writing, but a student needs to be familiar with a wider range of forms e.g. leaflets, blogs, advertisements, newspaper articles, literature in its various forms: poetry, plays, novels – both modern and of the canon.  Is it any wonder they are unable to write a confident and accurate letter? – a task we repeated on a very regular basis and they may have the opportunity to do only once or twice during their GCSE years.  They also need to be able to write about the way language is used to create meaning and to target audiences at a much more sophisticated level than was the case in the past, when our focus was on precis and comprehension.
  • As mentioned above, far more subjects are now included within the curriculum – how then is it possible to study any one area in the depth which would allow an adequate contrast with the education of the past? It is like comparing like with completely unlike and to what end?  Young people do not spell as well as they used to (those who had the opportunity – usually those fortunate enough to be educated privately or in the grammar system.)  How could they given the current breadth of curriculum requirements? However, they CAN multi-task in a way that we never could in the past: they can create effective, often inspirational materials, using a variety of ICT/ multi-media skills to target a range of audiences and they can explain how they have achieved these things. They can create websites, films,documentaries, podcasts and  manage their social lives, alomgside their studies via Twitter and Facebook!  They can manage projects, work in teams and meet long-term deadlines.

I believe it is far too easy for people of a certain age to, thoughtlessly and carelessly, mentally list what they could do at a certain age and then deride the current education system when our young people are unable to do the same.

Okay so you want them to be able to spell; what then would you remove from the curriculum to enable this to happen? Are these critics parents?  How much time do they spend at home, helping their children consolidate  what they have been taught in school?  as so often was a role played by parents in the past. Indeed many new elements of the curriculum have arisen as a direct consequence of an abdication of parental responsibility – where else did Citizenship and PCSHEE come from?

However, that is all a whole other discussion and I cannot claim to be a saint in that respect!  My final point is let’s prioritise, as a society, what skills from the past are still of value and decide what can go from our over-crowded curriculum to enable us to improve these areas.

In the meantime, let us concentrate on reversing the natural instinct to contrast negatively so that we list instead the skills that children HAVE and we, of a certain generation, have not, rather than ‘knocking’ them during this annual ‘examination-candidate bashing’ season!  Let’s face it – who is better prepared for a world that is very different from that of our bygone age?

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