A certain Martin Green, who says he has retired after 18 years as head of a sixth form, claims in today's Independent that there's a conspiracy between government, teachers and exam boards to push results up year after year. He says their motivation is clear.
I'd like to put in my penn'oth, because I've seen my own pupils' results getting better and better in my teaching career. I don't think the intelligence of my pupils varied all that much over the years, and although my teaching may have improved a wee bit through experience, that can't be the whole answer. I believe that the biggest change has been in attitude towards exams.
When I was researching the history of the school I taught at, a former pupil told me this:
The teaching is those days (about 1940) was relaxed and School Cert. came on one without fuss. Exams were taken in one's stride.
Another former pupil agreed:
Of course you were told that you should get good results, but nothing like the pressure put on the young today. … As for external exams, they said 'Your exam is next Tuesday' and you go and do it. There was none of the present pushing or great swotting or urgency about it.
From a slightly later period, I can bear witness to this attitude. O levels came in in 1952,I think, and I would have been in the first batch of examinees, if it had not been for the 'age bar', the regulation that no one under 16 years old was allowed to sit the new exam. My school's response was to promote me into the Lower Sixth anyway, and put me in for 3 A levels at the end of that Lower Sixth year, along with English language, French and Maths – and History of Science of all things. My results were as might be expected – scraped through in English, French and Maths, failed History of Science entirely, and got an O level pass in the three A level subjects.
I was disappointed, naturally, because I wasn't used to failing exams, but no one was too put out. I just did another year in the Sixth Form and took the A levels again, and passed this time. At the same time, we had a very full life of sport (only as far as the 2nd XV), music, school plays, Art lessons (that has just come back to me) with afternoons out to study local buildings of merit, and clubs run by pupils. We were pupils in those days; none of this wishing one's life away by becoming 'students' before we got to university.
But I allow myself to be distracted from my point. In Sixth Form lessons we were not taught for A level. We were taught Latin, Greek and Ancient History for their own sakes. I cannot remember what our set texts were, because they were just four among the many that we read. I still possess, somewhere, the four-page printed sheet listing all the major Classical authors, with space for us to fill in the works of each as we read them. By the time I left school I had written in works by many of the names, including Theocritus, and we had read even pseudo-Euripides, the Rhesus.
When, after a gap of about 20 years, I went back to school as a teacher, I expected to teach in a similar way, only to find that the pressure was on to teach exclusively towards the next exam. 'Is it on the syllabus?' was the pupils' cry. If the pressure did not come from the pupils, it came from the parents. If not from them, it came from the Head in her little private discussions with each head of department after the department's exam results. During my 20 plus years of teaching, that pressure grew and became (to me) irresistable. The interesting digressions that were possible during my first ten years became impossible by the end. Retirement for me came just at the right time.
And the point of these reminiscences? As teaching concentrates ever more narrowly on getting grades, the grades pupils get will go up. They are almost bound to. But the improvements in exam results come at a cost. No dalliance with Theocritus or the Rhesus. No delight in producing translations of Horace into rhyming English verse. No writing of (optional) Latin verse.
I have just found Pericles' Funeral Oration, the part that contrasts Athens and Sparta. Here's a bit:
There is a difference, too, in our educational systems. The Spartans, from the earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass our lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are… There are certain advantages, I think, in our way of meeting danger voluntarily, with an easy mind, instead of with laborious training, with natural rather than with state-induced courage.
For dangers read exams? Have we changed from a nation of Athenians into a nation of Spartans? And if so, is it a good thing? The Spartans won the Peloponnesian War, yes. But would you choose to live in 5th century Sparta or 5th century Athens?
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