Tag Archives: examinations

Is this advanced?

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.


Is it social?

Sunlight streams through the panes of glass, heating up the room to a temperature roughly equal to that of the Gobi Desert, and, reflecting off the slightly off-white of Physics Unit 1 June 2011, it taunts the student with its vitamin D-filled mockery.

Yes, it’s examination time again, that time when hours of sunlight and hours of time spent indoors with one’s nose either in past papers or textbooks are seemingly proportional.

For one student, of apparently unknown identity, that somewhat irksome proportionality became less so last week. Partaking in the social media craze of the selfie, one GCSE student snapped themselves in front of a hall full of fellow students and a rather powerless invigilator. The audacious student underwent the cancellation of all their papers and prohibition from public examinations for 5 years – or so they say.

Some of my contemporaries protest that, since no sensitive information was leaked, this is a rather unfair treatment. Mutterings are made about the growing distance between adults and youths as regards social media.

In one respect they’re right. There is a lack of understanding about social media youth culture. But that nescience is not solely confined to adults – youths themselves are unaware of the implications of what they post and where.

This particular selfie was a ridiculous statement of over-confidence which undermines the seriousness of public examinations – punishment has been meted out and hopefully will deter others from behaving in a similar way, despite it being “worth the retweets” according to the instigator.

The concept of the selfie is, in essence, based on a desire for recognition and praise. Most people who post them do not intend viewers to note the nice landscape, cute pet or whatever else the excuse in the tagline may be; they crave ‘likes’. This is prevalent not only with teenage girls and boys, but even, actually, with the older generation.

This is all part of the sub-culture which has sprung up surrounding social media. Numerous users of Facebook are so desperate for attention that they post statuses informing those who are too bored or desperate to scroll past them on their newsfeed that they may receive a like on a profile picture or a compliment on their timeline in return for liking that status. And what, pray, is the point of that exercise? Presumably so that the poster can feel self-satisfied after collecting a certain number of likes for that status, plus the kudos of appearing a popular individual who readily hands out compliments.

Full disclosure: I have a Facebook account. Some of you may have ended up here from Tea With Shortbread’s Facebook page. Before I set up my Facebook account, when I was 15, I used to affirm that I would never get it. This was due to my perception of the culture surrounding it, of which I was already well aware, with my father, as a lawyer whose expertise involves social media, having warned me of it and of whispers of the issues related to it which I heard at school, namely cyber-bullying and relentless showing off (of which one aspect is covered in this post).

I also wanted to keep up with the latest news from celebrities or organisations I liked, principally F1 drivers, and to know what was going on in my year – posts which don’t always emanate self-congratulation or attention-seeking desperation.

Yes, Facebook can be useful. I can now follow the latest tennis tournaments much more easily than on BBC live text or equivalent mass media services, see memorable pictures of my Duke of Edinburgh group battling incessant gradient changes and even see what the PM’s getting up to whilst campaigning.

A limited selfies are actually entertaining, like the one of Michael Gove with some schoolchildren or that selfie which made Mrs Obama so incensed. Selfies can also be useful. A few months ago, someone kickstarted a trend of women/girls posting selfies without make-up on and nominating their friends to do likewise, thus not only raising around £8m in less than a week but superseding the annoying trends of selfies and ‘neknominations’ (the latter led to a few deaths). Even people who never engage in selfies engaged in this, like me, although since I don’t wear make-up I wore a wolf mask instead.

Social media also managed to make a tangible benefit to society in the last year or so as well, with the efforts of terminal cancer patient Stephen Sutton being broadcast on several social media platforms, enabling him to raise almost £4m for the Teenage Cancer Trust by engaging well via social media as well as his indomitable courage.

Social media is not inherently bad. The most basic aims of it is to create better connections with other people online, whether with friends (Facebook), business contacts (LinkedIn) or the wider world (Twitter). That’s basically what parties are for, in the non-online world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong is the way society uses social media for selfish purposes. Cyber-bullying is a selfish attempt for people, often with inferiority complexes or issues of control, to assert some form of domination over a chosen target, and bullying amongst youth is probably at its height amongst the Facebook accounts of Year 8. Many profile pictures are selfish attempts to garner admiration – not all, but many, predominantly youth over-concerned with their image (a major issue for which media in general must take a lot of the blame). Some statuses are also designed to win support, particularly the mysterious ones which don’t specify any particular issue.

There is very little chance this will change, because the human species has the desire, particularly pronounced amongst youth, to win praise and feel appreciated. Social media gives a better platform than ever before for this. It’s time for society to take much more seriously the impact of social media and start trying to rectify some of the more adverse changes before they become indelible.

Picture is of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, whose social media accounts not only spread the best pictures of the collection but also give information about viewing times – an excellent example (picture taken by me at the RAF Waddington International Air Show 2013).