My Year 7 English set are, along with the rest of the school, enjoying the final weekend of Half Term. Or are they? When they get back on Monday they will be met by a week of exams and assessments, for which I am sure many are preparing avidly. This is all good practice for the numerous exams they will have when they do their GCSEs, AS Levels, A Levels, Undergraduate Degrees, Postgraduate Degrees, Professional Qualifications… Whether they, or we, like it or not, our pupils are likely to be spending a lot of time taking exams over the next decade of their lives. That’s how we measure people.
My English set are very good at taking exams. They are accomplished at reading the question thoroughly, meticulously backing up their answers with examples from the text. They then re-read their answers, perhaps making minor changes, or using remaining time at the end to make sure they have written enough detail to get full marks for that final question. They check spelling, grammar and punctuation, and sometimes find an appropriate point to insert one of their favourite mots du jour (‘mellifluous’ is a current trend) or add some interesting punctuation in order to show me that they can.
From our class work, I know that each of them is exceptionally good at creative writing, comprehension, poetry, recognising text types and parts of speech, and has a quite genuine love of literature. Exams do not tell me what they are and aren’t good at in terms of English – they tell me something far more crucial: That’s right, I’m examining my pupils on their exam technique.
We seem to be harbouring something of a national obsession with measuring academic achievement in the UK. We think that an ‘A’ represents achievement and an ‘F’ represents failure. A child who excels in the classroom is considered ‘academic’ or ‘hard-working’, whereas a child who is captain of the Rugby team, Grade VI trumpet or a whizz in the kitchen is thought of as ‘gifted’ or ‘skilled’, as though it required much less hard work to get there.
One of the great privileges of working in an independent Preparatory School or, of course, one of the many others of a similar ilk around the world, is that academia is celebrated with the same gusto as sporting, musical and artistic success. The wider curriculum is not seen as second-best, and pupils feel their achievements are celebrated no matter what they are. Schools like that manage to be academic anyway, because this broad curriculum aids learning and motivation across the whole timetable. Rather ironically, the more a school concentrates solely on academic achievement the more the highest marks may elude them, as the children wilt with boredom whilst their motivation wanes. We could be a hothouse and only train children for academic success, but where would this leave them as adults?
The best schools instil a sense of confidence in their children to try their best in everything they do; the best schools measure this attitude and value it above all else. Motivation and effort lead to achievement, so these are the attributes we must encourage. The best schools give the elephant and the goldfish the opportunity to have a go at climbing the tree, and the tools to help them along the way. The best schools allow the monkey, who knows he or she can climb the tree perfectly well, the opportunity to try something more challenging instead. Children are more likely to go into an exam confidently if they know that the end result is only one of our wide range of measuring tools. And yes, in the meantime we will continue to find a better way to measure academic success as well as all the other achievements that are more difficult to quantify.
Children are more likely to be motivated to do their best if they know the exams are for them, not their parents and certainly not their teachers. After all, why would I deliberately set out to give myself all that extra marking…?!