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We’ve made the world crap enough for kids as it is. It’s time to award elitist school exams an F-off and ditch them for good

Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

We’ve made the world crap enough for kids as it is. It’s time to award elitist school exams an F-off and ditch them for good
The UK government’s plans to make school exams even more stressful is the latest example of a crazy global obsession with harmful and unfair testing. It’s time to create a better, more meritocratic world by dumping the whole idea.

“Childhood,” they say. “The best years of your life.”

How depressing. It implies that most of us are past the tipping point on the happiness graph, plummeting ever downwards. For morale purposes, they really should PR old age a bit more.

‘They’ are also basically saying to kids that this is as good as it gets. Make the most of your youth because adulthood is a nightmare.

Perhaps this is why grown-ups are levelling things down by making childhoods significantly less enjoyable through what I believe to be a carefully-coordinated global campaign of child cruelty. I call it Make Childhood Grate Again.

Through MCGA, we’ve made the air so foul that they won’t even be able to remember their childhoods. We’ve made parents so scared of paedophiles, terrorists and children’s TV presenters that they won’t let their offspring play alone outside without surveillance systems or security teams in place.

We’ve invented social media platforms to devastate their social skills and self-esteem and make them do stupid dances. We’ve tortured their tiny heads with Baby Shark. We’ve built an economy in which they’re more likely to make a living by filming themselves playing video games than being, for example, useful.

And if that isn’t bad enough, we still make them sit exams – the one really crappy childhood thing that most of us get to avoid as adults. In fact, the UK government is looking to make the experience even more gruesome.

After handling the summer’s exam crisis (all part of MCGA) in a way that was tragically stupid and insensitive even by its own impressive standards, it’s decided that it doesn’t want to risk pupils’ grades being assessed using such unreliable factors as the opinions of teachers who have taught them for two years.

Instead, Gavin Williamson – a man whose qualifications for any job, let alone education secretary, are questionable – wants to have stricter mock exams whose results could be used if final exams are cancelled again. So the kids will have to suffer un-mocked stress levels twice, with the added bonus of knowing that, if they do really well in the high-stakes practice tests, it could well count for nothing.

Perhaps the cruellest aspect of all this is that they shouldn’t be sitting exams at all. No kid should. Exams should be flushed down the toilet of educational history to join corporal punishment and tapioca pudding in the schooldays-of-yore sewer.

The whole notion of exam-heavy education systems is not only outdated, inefficient and illogical, it’s damaging to kids, the economy, society and basically anyone who hasn’t popped out of a privileged womb straight into a blanket of cosy elitist comfort.

For some reason, the world is test-obsessed and not always in a fun pub-quiz way. We test kids at school from an age at which few even know what a test is and make sure we keep testing them, with ever-increasing pressure levels, until they’re old enough to legally avoid being tested. It’s like a cycle of abuse. We had to do exams as children and thus we can’t help but inflict them on later generations, despite knowing how painful and pointless they are.

There’s the weird, sadistic ritualism. Kids are filed into a room by austere teachers like lambs to slaughter, only lambs don’t know what’s coming to them. A big deal is made of the rules and the time limit before the countdown – one of humanity’s most nerve-wracking creations – is ceremonially begun. 

This, of course, comes after weeks, months and years of being told how crucial these exams are to their life chances – something that is absolutely screwing with their mental health. Forget developing conversational skills or keeping fit or learning how to cook: what really matters, kiddies, is how much you can memorise. Memorise and then, of course, almost immediately forget. 

Ask yourself, if you sat your school exams right now, what grades would you get? I can barely even spell “syense” these days.

Some argue that exams prepare kids for adulthood. I’m not sure what kind of adulthood these people have endured, but they have my sympathy. I find that, when I need to learn something, I research it. If I then forget it, I find it out again. My life isn’t suddenly shunted off the rails or the hole in my knowledge permanently etched in the public record.

At work, I’ve generally been assessed by what I do throughout the year. I’ve had my bad days and my better days, but my bosses have always had a reasonable idea of how good I am at my job. I’ve never been sat in a silent room in June and asked to bash out an article, in under two hours and without access to the internet, that will determine my future employment. 

Annual reviews, you say? Yes, we all take those very seriously.

Exams favour kids (and schools) who can work the system. Those with better resources who can learn by rote and put down the answers the exam boards want, rather than any that involve imagination or critical thought.

This is why so many top jobs are filled by rule-following automatons. Establishment bootlickers who wouldn’t know an original thought if it bit them on the baccalaureate. The system perpetuates privilege by putting in power those who benefit from the system. A bit like, well, most things really. 

Some kids, even some geniuses, simply don’t cope well with exam conditions, warping the results and nudging the scales further in favour of the machines.

"Oh, but it teaches them to deal with pressure," I hear. Not any kind of pressure that might be useful, it doesn’t. I prefer my doctor to give me the right treatment, not swot up on my condition the night before and try to cure me ‘against the clock’ while wired off his bonce on caffeine pills.

I’ll admit to some bias. I have the memory of a particularly forgetful twig. I’m the anti-elephant, the anti-Rainman – the anti-Elephant Man (I hope). So I never liked exams. But I also never saw how they were in any way a measure of my ability. 

Ditching exams for ongoing assessment would make the world a better and more meritocratic place. It would not only improve students’ mental state but also their analytical and research skills, their retention of knowledge and the chances of them trying to do well all the time, rather than temporarily cramming info into their young brains. We’d get smarter, more creative people doing the important jobs, not just the ones who know how to play the game.

And if you don’t agree with me, take it up with my pal Albert (Einstein), who wrote,“The teachers’ impression of a student derived during the school years, together with the usual numerous papers from assignments – which every student has to complete – are a succinctly complete and better basis on which to judge the student than any carefully executed examination.”

Memorise that.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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