A Degree of Anxiety

It’s with dismay that I read that Cambridge University’s admissions tutors reckon getting rid of AS-levels would be a bad thing, an attitude which suggests to me that they haven’t had much contact with the students in their university in recent years. Dr Geoff Parks’ letter apparently assumes that schools are there to ensure that universities know who to admit; whilst I’m all in favour of fair admissions, especially in the state sector, the responsibility for this lies with universities – they shouldn’t expect the government to run their education policy simply to make things easier for them. What schools ought to be doing is educating people so that it’s worth sending them to university at all, and in this respect the AS-level has done nothing but damage. And it’s not, as Dr Parks seems to think, simply a matter of content; the very presence of AS-levels gets in the way of education, so whilst I find Gove’s ideas about education worrying in many respects, on the issue of returning to traditional A-levels I wholeheartedly agree with him.

It all comes down to what Gove describes as ‘the art of deep thought’ and what Dr Parks calls ‘intellectual development’, but in both cases that’s just a wanky way of saying ‘discovering who you are’. The lower sixth was the year in which I found I loved reading Dickens and poetry, started listening to music by composers I hadn’t heard of, took an interest in current affairs and, with teachers and pupils alike, debated and argued at great length the burning issues of the day. I started scripting and filming silly but competently crafted short films, started composing music with genuine sparks of imagination and wrote a colossal score for a school production of The Tempest, all of which are directly relevant to who I am and what I’m doing now, and all of which was possible because at no point did I feel the pressure of impending public exams. In many ways, it was a more formative year than any that I had at university itself.

I have long felt that teenagers have been cheated of that experience. I watched my younger brother and sister go through the sixth form with a constant presence of coursework whilst the same teachers who had thrown me into a world of creativity and discovery cut back on their extra-curricular activities and threw all the ‘messing about’ out of their lessons to cram factual information into tighter deadlines. I am fortunate enough to work in a school where every effort is made to keep the sixth form as varied and creative an environment as possible, which is largely the reason I have employment at all as a composer-in-residence, yet even I feel the pressure only one term into the lower sixth to hit deadlines and ‘achieve’ (in the least meaningful sense of the word) because these are, after all, the marks that may decide which universities offer you a place. When I do try to broaden pupils’ horizons I’m all too often met with the response ‘do I need to know this for the exam?’

It’s all very well for Dr Parks to suggest the AS exams could be sat ‘in mid to late June and no earlier’, as if that will make all the difference. If he knew how things work in schools he would realise that a public exam at the end of a school year, wherever it is scheduled, massively changes the way teachers approach a course. It requires them to be focussed from day one on syllabus and performance, rather than approaching subjects from the very different angle of education (in its broadest sense). What this means in practical terms is that, aside from the whole issue of students developing as people, certain key skills are overlooked, such as constructing arguments or even constructing a bloody essay. (I’d be interested to know how Dr Parks justifies his claim that performance in Cambridge exams has improved – as a Cambridge superviser I have observed the quality of written work in the first year slipping year after year, whilst as an examiner I have been urged to use ‘the full range of marks’ more liberally, so if Dr Parks has reached his conclusions about performance purely from the marks awarded I fear he is on dodgy ground.)

Meanwhile, the continual presence of public assessment forces schools to put limits on the extra-curricular activities they can allow both staff and students to get involved in, as there is suddenly a new pressure for everyone to be seen to perform. Schools will of course run mock exams to prepare students for AS levels, which means they are thinking about revision before they’ve even completed a term. So, most sadly, with the presence of a public exam at the end of one short school year, what could potentially be the relaxed and fertile arena for development that I enjoyed and which produces well-rounded students with varied interests who are capable of complex and mature thought and indeed of writing a decent essay, becomes a pressured machine for churning out results.

Whether or not you call it ‘the art of deep thought’, it’s a big price to pay to keep admissions tutors happy.

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