Far from being ‘advanced’, the further education system in the United Kingdom has a malign tumour at its core, and that tumour is itself.
Where once a pass at A Level was taken as a mark of distinction in a particular subject, with the tantalising A-grade a guarantor of prowess, it’s now a commonplace ornament on a list of eminent achievements expected of every student. A-Levels are symptomatic of society’s obsession with increasingly meaningless grades, a desire to project a plastic façade of competence rather than granite proof thereof.
The situation has deteriorated such that students are now routinely taught how to navigate mark schemes rather than the content they supposedly represent; swallowing prescribed formulas from the first week of most courses, creativity is strangled in favour of marks and, of course, league table positions.
As battery chickens in a dingy coop, students are stuffed with swathes of information to match the mark scheme by the educational machine, creative wings clipped not just by the examination boards but also by the fervent desire of the teachers to obey their whims. In sciences, students complete thousands of past questions to learn the mark scheme rather than the scientific theories or processes to pass the examinations and procrastinate over their actual education, as by laying an egg every day the hen delays slaughter. In arts subjects, the poultry inmates of the education system are systematically taught certain words and phrases which get marks, extending to the extremes in languages by teachers often writing speaking scripts for students to rote-learn.
With 270-word limits imposed on language essays (including, in at least one board, to discuss an entire film therein), where is the room to experiment linguistically, to developed detailed trains of thought or to analyse cinematic elements or societal tenets? When the widely-pronounced acknowledgement that German, for example, takes 33.3% more words as a direct equivalent of the English version, is taken into consideration, what can comprise these essays but sweeping generalisations, superficial narration and an end product linguistically equivalent to an asphyxiated deer, once regal but now swollen and rotting?
Although they are at last being phased out, the insidious ways in which schools manipulate controlled assessments and EMPAs by massaging the dates of papers and playing fast and loose with board regulations to secure their students the best grades at the expense of fair play and a good education, often suggesting content and answering ‘hypothetical’ questions, are endemic.
No wonder students struggle with the gaps between GCSE and AS, between AS and A2 and between A2 and university. Without a solid skill base having been established, what is there to build on but the ethereal departure of hope such a disappointment engenders? The marginalising of actual ability threatens not only the individual student, but more broadly the economy, with one dentist recently telling us how his employees with an A in English Language GCSE are unable to write a document with any sense of spelling, grammar or structure. What foundation is this for any form of advancement?
The pythonic embrace which has descended on further education belies the epithet ‘advanced’ which presides proudly over the heads of many teenagers, smothering any inclination to develop thought processes with absurd time constraints, word limits and concrete mark schemes.
Advanced Levels do not work for the most academically able. They do not work for the least academically able. For a minority caught exactly in the middle, willing to rote-learn mark schemes and manufacture a few paltry paragraphs, what is there to change? All too often various politicians wax lyrical about ‘the few’ of their opponents, yet with this crucial flaw in our society, never was so much slowed for so many by so few.