Thursday, 19 March 2009

Education Tirade, (ET)

Forgive the stereotypical student topic, but I'm stuck on the idea that both GCSE and A-Level exams actually are pretty much "meaningless", even if they do make it possible to achieve placements in excellent universities. My personal grievances occur in the subject of English Literature, (the field that I plan to wade into as a degree). Although I've found GCSE and A-Level incredibly worthwhile, with no doubt thrown upon the validity of studying literature in school whatsoever (and I would do them both again if time was somehow rewound) neither level seems to properly fathom the factors that make someone good at English Literature. To begin with, in order to achieve high marks at AS, candidates going to any fairly well-equipped school can get through the course with very high marks if they simply pay attention and learn the relevant facts, history, critics, symbolism and can weave it into a passable argument. Although this sounds in summary like a lot of work, I am not really denying this. But the course becomes an exercise in exam technique from the very beginning, essays are twisted and convoluted to hit certain criteria, with no dedicated marks for originality, interpretation, style or anything that denotes potential to succeed to the upper reaches of the study of English Literature. As long as I know the text well enough, I can get full marks. And furthermore, the level of dependence of the average English class upon their teacher is exceptional. Perhaps this should not be the case?


What has probably stirred me up in opposition to the current system is how "canned" and generally unprepared I feel as an aspiring writer; as though I have spent the last three years of my student education conforming as best I can to a mould that is now holding me back. I've been training my writing style to one that is ultimately mild, acceptable, but tinged with an underlying arrogance due to the ingrained drive to display knowledge. Overall, this technique is relatively useless (without severe reformation) outside of examinations. 


But the worst thing seems to be that it would be incredibly awkward to create a course that could test these qualities. The mark scheme would have to  be incredibly intricate, and candidates would not be guaranteed top marks even if they worked incredibly hard for them. But this is symptomatic of many examinations in school. They aim to be ‘fair’ rather than comprehensive, and achievable rather than an accurate measurement of talent for a subject.

However, not only is this typical of many humanities subjects, it also stretches into the field of science. Physics, for instance is not succeeded in through logical thought as much as it is through having read the mark schemes and knowing what the examiner wants from you. Of course, this raises the issue as to whether people can actually be better at a subject than others, whether or not practice can make somebody more talented in a certain area. Somebody who is naturally talented in physics (and such rare creatures do occasionally stalk among us mortals) may attain the same score as somebody who is simply strong-willed with a stomach for long, lonely hours of revision. Is this latter quality what employers are looking for? And should students who sacrifice so much of their time and effort deserve to be burnt by employers when interview-time rears up as the next frontier?


Our education system sends false promises to both employers and students. Students see achieving the highest exam marks as a ticket into the best-paid jobs, whilst employers often miss those with genuine ability by using grades as a weeding tool, and still have far too many applicants left over. And although this may only seem to affect those striving for the best grades, it is the idea that being good at a subject simply is not enough that may put many people off.

Is there a solution? In my meagre experience some subjects do succeed in measuring both natural ability and hard work, but they leave the majority feeling betrayed and helpless; disheartening at best. It may simply be that students need to be given regular reality checks; they need to know from teachers and friends, and from extensive introspection, as to exactly
where their strengths and weaknesses are manifest. But more than this, if a student has any ambition to continue with a subject past school, they will have to look beyond the syllabus, find out what employers want, and what potential careers or study will demand from them
. It’s just a shame that for now, the Public education sector does not provide such crucial experience, and students have to realise on their own accord, perhaps after a soul-destroying failure, that this is the only way to get ahead.