The Patch

July 1, 2007

Sunday 1st July- Students of the world, REVOLT!

Filed under: International News,Miscellany,UK News — denesha @ 12:34 pm

I return to the Patch after being forced to divulge everything I know on History, English Literature and Chemistry in an exam hall on a booklet of paper under timed conditions. For you see, my little Patchers, I just completed my A levels. These little tests that most 18 year olds across the country sit, are designed to gauge how clever we are in certain subjects, after studying the subject intensively for two years. On the days leading up to the 16th August, these 18 year olds will read about how ‘easy’ A Levels are and pundits lamenting about how ‘back in the day’ (which day are these journalists referring to? Maybe it’s 23rd June 1980? Is that the day?!), they had it much harder. These pundits should be shot. Presumably, ‘back in the day’ (23rd June 1980), they didn’t have to pay top up frees, be thrown into a job market that believes it is saturated with graduates or live in an economy that makes first time buying near impossible.

It irritates me that if I fail my A Levels, I will be deemed stupid for not passing these new ‘easier’ exams, be rejected by my university for an International Relations degree for not knowing how to work out the empirical formula of compound Z and a disappointment to my lovely parents. They are lovely, hence, why I want to do well. I’d like to make them proud. So, hearing and reading about how these exams are easy, only makes the worry and shame of it all much worse. It’s very unfair considering that being forced to regurgitate everything I know on a subject in an hour, in an eloquent and presentable manner, will be used as an indicator to see how smart I am or how suitable I am for university. That’s beyond unfair. A Levels do not show how independent or clever students are. They are merely an inefficient tool to award university places or jobs to students based on this idea of ‘merit.’ Of course, students who work hard and get the grades should get into university. However, as previously mentioned, being forced to regurgitate facts may not necessarily be the best way in which to gauge a student’s intelligence, particularly if the student struggles under timed conditions.

Currently, the British education system works on a compulsory three step process. You start with primary school (including nursery); move on to junior school and then spend 5 years in secondary school. Students will take SATs at age 7, 11 and 14. During years 10 to 11, secondary school students will study their GCSE courses, culminating obviously in GCSE exams in June. From this point on, students are allowed to pretty much decide their own future. Students can choose to continue their education, either doing A Levels at a sixth form college or undertaking another higher education course at a specialised college. Whilst studying for A Levels, students from poorer background can be eligible to accept EMA money to provide them with enough money to allow them to complete their studies. In year one of their A level course, aged 17, students will take their AS level examinations in early June. In year two of their A level course, aged 18, students take their A2 level examinations. The results of their A level examinations can determine their future, especially in terms of entering university. If a student receives good A Level results, they can apply to ‘better’ universities for ‘better’ courses. If a student receives less than good A Levels, they can apply through clearing, retake the exams and reapply, or decide to enter the world of work. Of course, students with good A levels can always enter the world of work too; as after all, university is not always the best option of everybody.

As I realised while I was revising for these exams, my performance in these one to three hour exams will determine my future. Failure limits my options, whilst success provides me with many options. So…not that much pressure then?
I began to bitch about my plight (despite the fact that in comparison to people living in Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon or Gaza, I actually lived a blissful existence during my exam revision) and was often heard muttering “fuck you, Gladstone” to myself. I blame William Gladstone for my exams. My history teacher told me that it was he who introduced reforms within the civil service and army to prevent ‘individual advancement’. Of course, that was needed in the 1870’s to prevent the landed gentry or middle classes buying jobs or foreign commissions, but fuck you, Gladstone.

Exams are necessary. They determine who is awarded places on merit and ensures that people cannot ‘buy’ jobs. At least for my Asian parents, they are the stepping stone for me to achieve the ‘immigrant’s dream’. The way in which I will elevate myself into the coveted ‘middle class’ position that they dreamed about for me as they slaved away in mediocre, unfulfilling jobs. Whether or not their dream is true, it will remain ingrained in the majority of people, who would believe that success in life is rooted in success in exams. The number of A’s is equivalent to the number of cars, houses or holidays, you will have. I’m not sure that’s true, as after all, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.

That brings me seamlessly onto the American education system. Unlike Britain, the American system is less based on preparing students for external examinations, and rather works on a basis of continuous evaluation system, in which children are judged on their performance throughout their school career.  A student’s grade is dependent on their performance in regular class run tests, homework and class participation. The less exam focussed education system would be ideal to British students but one should bear in mind that American students finish compulsory high school at age 18 with a high school diploma that is equivalent to 5 GCSE, whereas British students can finish school at age 16 with a minimum of 5 GCSEs. Therefore, American students take longer to achieve the same goals as British students. American students who long to attend a British university will be encouraged to undertake Advanced Placement classes, which are the nearest equivalent to A Level. In AP classes, students will study a particular subject and complete coursework in that particular subject for a year. At the end of the year, students can pay to take an exam in the class that will ensure that they do not have to take a similar course at their university. As for a British student’s idealised look at their less exam focussed system, one should also bear in mind that in the two years running up to the completion of their high school diplomas, students hoping to attend universities will also be compelled to sit for the SAT or ACT exams. The SAT has three main subject areas- Critical Reading, Maths and Writing. These exams are used by American universities as a means of evaluating potential students; so perhaps, American students are in the same boat as students studying for A Levels. Except, there is no way in which the SAT is nearly as difficult as A levels, especially since most of the questions are multiple choice. Nevertheless, the SAT score is only used by some universities as a requirement and will not have a bearing on the success of a student’s high school diploma. On the other hand, success in A Levels does apparently affect the wage boundaries in key jobs, should a child decide to leave school at 18. Of course, the accuracy of this belief is doubtful. So whilst the American system is less exam heavy, the British system is superior in terms of the qualifications that students will leave school with. However, the American system does focus more on talent, and nurturing a child’s progress throughout their school career without merely assessing their ability in a single exam on a June morning. That seems to be more valuable to me than all of my GCSE’s, AS levels and soon to be A Levels.

Nevertheless, for all of our complaining, the British education system is in fact, quite superior to the American system and the even more exam focused system in Asian countries like Singapore. We leave school younger with the same qualifications as Americans. We take harder exams that will prepare us for university education yet we still end up with the same literacy rates as the US, at an impressive score of 99.9%. So, why not adopt a policy that combines the successes of our exam system and the successes of the American system? We’d only end up with the same literacy rate again, but maybe this time, we won’t be judging our students merely on their performance in that single two hour long Chemistry exam and rather on their performance throughout their school career? It seems fairer to me, especially when considering that a new A* grade will be introduced in A Level assessments soon. Although, I’m sure the pundits will still lament about how it was back in their day, and whilst I’m sure they had it equally as hard as we do, I just wish they’d consider how their damnation of our A level system affects young 18 year olds who are a lot smarter than their A level grades. Exams are not easy. The American system is easier, but not easy. AS levels are easier than the previous system but are not easy. A level pass rates are on the rise, but A levels are not easy. So in August, please remember this article when you read about how easy exams are nowadays. Remember how this little 18 year old will be spending her summer holiday worrying about how she should have drawn that graph a little bit more curved, how she should have used the word ‘chauvinist’ instead of ‘masochist’ and how she really wishes Gladstone had been less principled.


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