Does Education Need an Education? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Does Education Need an Education?

Comment Writer Lily Haugh criticises the British education system

Damian Hinds has declared ‘there will be no more new changes to primary tests, GCSEs or A-Levels’.  Queue eye roll. You speak too late, Damian.

Let’s consider the predicament for a typical young person, sentenced, from the age of four, to 15 years in the grueling education system. Year 2: SATS. Year 6: SATS (plus, for some, the Grammar School test). Years 10 and 11: GCSEs (the new, fun-loving 9-1 system). Some students, like myself, take up to twenty exams. Year 12: As Levels. Year 13: A Levels.

At long last, you crawl out from under your tomb of textbooks and breathe, squinting at the strange world beyond the desk. This is the world that those past grades, those all-defining letters, have tossed you haphazardly into.

Some students, like myself, take up to twenty exams

An unwanted memory from my A-Levels resurfaces. Hundreds of flashcards loom in organized stacks. A whole two textbooks painstakingly condensed: England under Tudor reign and the Russian Revolution. Fascinating until the topics of two 2 ½ hour exams. If you were for some reason inclined to smell these cards, you would be appalled by their reek of blood, sweat and tears.

Flashcard one. I squint, attempting to see through the paper, holding the flashcard to the light to view my scrawled answer. Soon enough, I turn it over, scanning the answer in the hope that it will lodge itself some place in the retrievable part of my mind. Right, on to flashcard two.

Once upon a time, these facts ignited interest: the fires of curiosity raged, only to eventually burn out with no new information for fuel. The flashcarded facts were now merely broken matches.

There is a reason school is typically compared with prison. It institutionalizes the way you think. I often wonder what happened to intelligence and creativity that lay beyond the bounds of institutionalized learning?

There is a reason school is typically compared with prison. It institutionalizes the way you think.

Those who can wire their minds to fit the education system are often heavily pressured, whilst those who cannot become excluded. What the education system does not appreciate is differences.

Such differences would not cause issues if education were geared towards the experience of learning, allowing people to explore their own thinking processes. Instead, education focuses on exams, exams, exams; these exams take a very narrow view of intelligence, placing massive emphasis on memory. But isn’t understanding equally, if not more, important?

Rather than increasingly pushing exams to the end of the course, would it not be sensible to have minor tests, often supplemented with coursework, throughout? This way, the emphasis would be on how far students understood their studies, as oppose to their ability to memorize years worth of knowledge. This relieves pressure on one single decisive test at the end; students can relax in the knowledge that a few grades can go amiss without impeding the final mark. Significantly, coursework could be flexible, designed to spur, develop and award individuality in thought.

Measures must be taken, with pressures becoming crippling for young people’s mental health. The anxiety of A-Levels, for me, still resonates. An increasingly populous, and so more competitive, job market means exams have become a bullying force to separate abilities. Young people are being intoxicated by the western, Capitalist culture of productivity. I used to buy into this. But, at University, I have gained a refreshing distance outside of that clinically exam-based climate, and so perspective on its damaging consequences. This has allowed me to re-established a passion for learning.

The pattern of less stress equating to better education seems clear. Welfare is just as important as learning

Interestingly, England was not even rated in an article in The Independent concerning top schooling systems. The Netherlands performed well, with ‘Dutch school children […] found to be the happiest in the world.’ This was surely linked to how the ‘students report little pressure and stress.’ Likewise, the Finnish system, which was rated the best in the world, ‘give relatively little homework and have only one mandatory test at age 16.’ The pattern of less stress equating to better education seems clear. Welfare is just as important as learning. And the British schools seem to underestimate just how much these two factors affect each other.

Undoubtedly, the British education system itself needs an education.


28th March 2018 at 9:00 am