Education – Exam culture put to the Test

I taught English and Drama in local schools from 1979 to 2005. I have great memories of the classroom and enjoy seeing some of my former students go on to flourish in the wider world.

In some ways education got rather better during my years as a teacher. There was more accountability, and I guess that that probably helped raise standards amongst some teachers who lacked drive and competence. And new subjects such as A level Theatre Studies, which I introduced into my last school, helped create a broader curriculum.

However one of the tragic features of education during my career was the growing tyranny of testing and measuring which can destroy both teacher and student alike. It seems that this dire trend has continued since I left the classroom.

Exam results are of course important – and we do have to try to measure ability in a manageable, concise way. Mathematical symbols can help, though much less so in the arts and humanities than in the Sciences.

However testing students regularly, using arithmetical or A/B/C calibration poses great dangers,  Often it ends up as inaccurate and partial rather than objective or wide-ranging. Testing is especially problematic if there is an expectation that these supposedly valid results will always improve.

Incessant testing and measuring also creates anxiety and fails to leave room for variable kinds and rates of development. And although competition is a useful human instinct  exam league tables create insidiously inappropriate market place values within education, in which teachers always compete with one another and schools do the same.

During my tenure as a teacher I certainly witnessed the distorted portrayal of educational excellence – it became mechanically achieved competence, whose imprimatur was a set of top class exam grades.

There was a failure within the educational establishment to confront a government agenda that was ruthless in its attempt to turn schools into exam factories, teachers into carefully monitored trainers and students into compliant and compulsive competitors, ready for their place in a hyper-capitalist society of consumption, acquisition and obedience.

One of the pleasures of teaching Drama and Theatre Studies is that it went against this grain to some degree. All devised or scripted creativity by drama students is co-operative work. It is team work, in the studio, with all the frustration and joy of having to rely on others in acts of shared imagination.

This is very different from beating everyone else to an A grade by sitting over and over again in an exam hall full of other teenagers, parked behind lines of desks, year by year.

Perhaps the saddest thing for teachers – as for other comparable professions- is that men and women may choose this career out of a love for interaction with people, and a desire to care. The reduction of interaction to process, of creativity to knowledge management, and of excellence to busy, functional efficiency can break the spirit of many teachers, placed as they are in an environment where every  exam grade is scrutinised and every performance measured against the value of others.

If the consumer society of modern hyper-capitalism thrives through the constant generation of illusory needs that must be gratified, then dissatisfaction needs to be instilled in student and teacher alike in the modern school.

And that is precisely what happens. The student who obtains an A grade yearns for an A star. The teacher whose results are top drawer this year is under pressure to stay there next year as much as the teacher who had a bunch of fails and D grades.

Revolutionary thinking on education was required at the time when I decided to quit teaching. I believe it still is.

Philip Orr is an ex teacher, historian and playwright. He can be found @scotushibernus 

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