As I write, my youngest child has just gone into an exam hall, scraped his uncomfortable chair noisily into position, put a few pens and pencils out in front of him, and, in common with thousands of kids across the country, prepared to do battle with a brand new GCSE exam.
This afternoon’s challenge is Physics. In common with most of his cohort, he’ll not have a lot of use for F = k x e or a = F/m in later life, and if he does, he’ll be able to look it up, rather than try desperately to remember as he walks into the exam hall. So we should probably forgive him if his mind wanders occasionally into the realms of ‘is this really worth it?’
At almost exactly the same time, several hundred miles north, his eldest brother is walking into a similar hall, but this time in a group of twenty-somethings, to take his final written exam, after five years of pretty serious academic and practical study. Months and months of revision have gone into just this one 3 hour event; 8 in the morning until 10 at night, day after day, seven days a week, just to put himself through a series of strenuous mental hoops, to qualify for a specific job. In which, incidentally, he will suffer astonishing levels of stress and anxiety for an entire career.
Just up the road, #3 will be sitting an exam to mark the end of his first year at Uni, and hopefully allowing him entry to the second, where, assuming there isn’t a repeat of the university strike action this year, he might actually get some tuition.
And finally, another few hundred miles to the west, at 9am, #2 has been handed a topic on which to write a 24 hour assignment; his final assessment of his degree. He’ll work on it all day, get some sort of finished paper this evening, get it proof read, and then work through the night fretting and finishing and fining until he hands it in tomorrow morning.
As a parent, this combination of events delivers a level of stress that has to take second place behind what the boys are feeling, but is nonetheless, very real. At 1330 this afternoon, when #4 hears the words ‘Turn over your papers’, I’ll be feeling physically sick. That’s not because it recalls any horrible past experience particularly, although like many people, one of my recurring nightmares is being put in an exam hall, hearing those words, and not being able to function. No, this nausea is about the consequence of success or failure, and what it means for the future of the ones I hold dear. All over the country, I imagine parents are all feeling this way, feeling awful for the ones whose hands we stopped holding years ago, but, who for a few hours at a time, really are completely and utterly on their own.
The point of writing this down is not particularly for any empathy, certainly not to justify any vicarious living through our kids. It’s to challenge why we go through all of this as either parents or young adults, as an accepted way of measurement. And to do that, we need to look at what’s at stake. For our family, the consequence of #1 screwing up this morning’s exam would be a re-run of year 5, on the assumption he fancies a sixth year of expensive study and pressure, and a bid goodbye to the job he’s already accepted. For #2, there’s about a 2% tolerance in his marking of this exam to distinguish between a very good and a very very good degree; something that will matter enormously in the daunting challenge of career prospects for arts graduates these days. And for #4, he’ll either get the qualifications to get to his college course, or he won’t. And if he doesn’t, then his plan B isn’t especially palatable.
And all of this is hanging on a couple of hours of assessment, when you might not be on your game, when you’re entirely at the whim of the examining board in which part of the syllabus they want to quiz you on, and, most importantly, when you might not be able to remember stuff.
Because pretty much every exam that my kids are currently sitting through still requires them to remember things that they’re unlikely to need either now or in the future. And the tests are a bit light on proving their abilities at (say) reasoning, or logic, or any other measure of what we might call intelligence for later life. That’s important because we just don’t need a lot of that stuff in our heads any more. I’m not saying that facts aren’t useful, but they’re all available, at the touch of a button, through that thing called the internet. Which is a much better reference point in most cases than the half remembered facts in your brain. For example, the last time I went to my GP, we had a quick conversation about why I’d come in, a bit of a poke about in the relevant area, then he went straight onto Google to confirm his thinking and choose the right medication. And rightly so; at a guess, the last time he’d been fully tested on his memory for medical facts was over twenty years ago.
I can’t help thinking that life would be a bit more sensible for everyone taking these exams these days if the focus was on reasoning, analysis and the ability to seek out relevant information rather than the regurgitation of facts and figures. The most intelligent people I’ve ever met have these sort of skills in spades; and they don’t necessarily have a detailed knowledge of stuff to make them any more functional in their lives. They also tend to have a high level of what them psychologists call ‘emotional intelligence’, which allows them to interact by recognising their and other people’s feelings.
For one reason or another, I reckon my kids score fairly highly when it comes to things that matter, like emotional intelligence. But I’m really fed up that they’ll continue to be measured on stuff that matters less, and in a way that tests something altogether different. Anyway, good luck to them, and good luck to everyone in similar boats. (Although I don’t know why you’re reading this, you should be revising, for goodness sake).