From SATs and 11-plus to GCSE

How time flies – it seems like only yesterday when my son started his secondary school education journey and it was yesterday when he finished the last of his GCSEs, usually seen as the culmination of compulsory schooling, although these days pupils need to go on and do some form of further education. After which, he walked (so I am led to believe) quietly away. But that he is hoping to return to do A-Levels, this could have been his last time attending that school.

Five and a half years ago, just after my son sat his 11-plus exam, I wrote and published “A Parents Guide to the 11-plus”. I deliberately chose the time to be somewhere between him sitting the exam and learning of the result so that it would not influence what I wrote. The same principle applies here except what is at stake is not as then whether he gets a place to begin grammar school but whether he will get the necessary GCSE grades that will allow him to study A-Levels at that same grammar school. I suspect the teachers already have a pretty good idea what those grades will be and the anticipation for the next two months will be finding out whether the actual grades are worse, on par with or better than those that were predicted.

I felt when my son was in the latter stages at his primary school it was rather pernicious that instead of doing projects that brought out the creative juices and explored the world in a multi-disciplined manner, that instead he had to focus on two exams: SATs because that is what the school wanted so it would look good in the league tables but didn’t interest me as a parent all that much, and the 11-plus which is what we as a family wanted so he could go to a better school, but didn’t interest his primary school all that much.

The 11-plus and grammar schools remain contentious issues as is the purpose of SATs, whether as a means to an end (i.e. an aid to raising standards) or as an end in itself. I talk about the whys and wherefores, the pros and cons and, importantly, how to negotiate the system as it stands, in my book, although there have been some changes since. For us the issue was all about getting an academically bright lad into the appropriate school, the best we felt was available.

While my recent experience has been with selective schools, what I am about to say might apply to any school, although I suspect few will surpass my son’s school in their endeavors to get outstanding exam results. This may be a good or a bad thing depending how we view education: good because emphasis might be placed on other important education related qualities and bad because aspiring to academic excellence might be sacrificed as a result.

Toward the end of his time at primary school, I took the view that I had to help my son negotiate the 11-plus but went along with his primary school regarding SATs preparation, albeit reluctantly. I still feel irritation that an inordinate amount of time was spent trying to get children to score highly in that exam rather than putting more emphasis on doing what I felt to be real education. I told myself then that we could take the hit of him doing two significant exams at so young an age because once he got to secondary school he would then get to do some serious learning. Also, if SATs are essentially about the 3 “R”s, then nailing these were important. GCSEs seemed a million miles away, although they have come around all too quickly.

Let me say first that overall I am satisfied with the education my son received at his grammar school, although I have a major reservation that I am about to come to. Whether I would be saying similarly if he had failed his 11-plus, I can’t say, for it is a hypothetical question, but nevertheless it is an important one for those parents who find themselves in a similar situation to us. I would like to feel that whatever school a child goes to he/she will receive an excellent education, but that is not necessarily the case and is why parental choice matters. As for the school my son did end up in, it did offer a broad curriculum, with many choices available and, as far as I could make out, a good standard of teaching, and it also promoted good manners. Importantly, it gave an opportunity for its pupils to excel according to their interests and abilities, not just in the classroom but in being able to take part in all sorts of extra-curricula activities.

One of the big questions, maybe the biggest when it comes to education, is what is the purpose of education and what should schools do to encourage those purposes to be carried out? I do not doubt this is a question that schools and their teaching staff do think about although, as I have discovered, it has probably been staring me in the face for most of my life, schools are increasing about trying to get good exam results and therefore their pupils are dealt with, with this purpose in mind. Put bluntly, it appears that education is a secondary rather than a primary purpose.

It is difficult to make observations and come to conclusions based on a singular experience and one where I had a vested interest, and even more so as it would not be fair on my son if I were to broadcast such thoughts for the world to see. But I have felt for some time, whether or not from day one I can’t say, but certainly in the last two or three years, more strongly than I had earlier anticipated and also based on a lifetime of education involvement, that there has been a strong emphasis on passing exams, and increasingly so, and not enough emphasis on enjoying the individual subjects, capturing the imagination of the pupils and exploring much beyond the tightly defined curriculum for those subjects, and exam success.

I also feel not enough emphasis is being placed on such things as critical thinking, studying more widely, especially if it is something that won’t be tested later, doing things that don’t easily lend themselves to exams, common sense and having a sense of wonder. I concur with Albert Einstein who said: “education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think“, “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” and “imagination is more important than knowledge“. I might be wrong, but getting teenagers that are going through adolescence to be enthusiastic about many things, especially if these do not particularly or naturally interest them, is going to be a challenge, and those who manage to do this merit special praise.

It seems to me that on paper at least children do better in exams than in my day, scoring better grades. They certainly take more subjects than we did. But as for improving standards or children being brighter now than then, I doubt it. I don’t have firm proof and any evidence I have is anecdotal at best. But I suspect there is less emphasis on rigor and the demands of learning, and the need for factual knowledge is less. I wonder if the emphasis once given to carefully arguing a case based on facts has now given way to more populace preoccupations like offering opinions such as how what one learns can be applied in social situations.

I have been surprised by such a tendency in the sciences. I can’t help feeling all subjects are now easier than when I studied for O-Levels and that the arts are easier than the sciences. Pupils, especially those who are bright, can often get high grades without being stretched or working too hard. The bite size approach to setting questions and the time spent in class working out how best to answer such questions is more these days, all in order to ensure exam success.

Back to primary schools – we wanted our children to do well in exams in order for them to get to go to better secondary schools or at least show proof they have the basics so they can do well at secondary school. They later get to take GCSEs which is meant to test what they have learned while there but they will need to do well so they can then go on to do A-Levels. They need to do well at A-Levels also in order to go to a decent university. While in my day getting a first degree was the zenith for a minority, many more get degrees now so what is needed is to do well here in order to study for a higher degree, and eventually get a good job. It seems to me the depressing underlying narrative is that the whole purpose of the education system is nothing more than getting good exam results with it being the main way into getting established in a good career, and for politicians and bureaucrats to further their agendas.

As for what education should be about, and if I had a say, at least as far as what takes place in formal institutions like schools and universities, that will have to wait for a future post.