Education breeds a success that reeks of failure

Our children are the most over-examined in the developed world, yet among the least well-educated.

Dear Mr Gove,

I realise that you are very busy trying to fix the country’s education system. Quite a tall order when Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, said on Radio 4 earlier this week that there is no such thing as a good or bad teacher because education is a “collaborative process”. Good luck with that! So I really don’t want to waste your precious time, but the thing is, my 16 year-old is in the middle of her GCSEs and, how can I put this? The whole thing stinks.

Come with me, Secretary of State for Education, into the bedroom of a teenager in the middle of her GCSEs. Last night, I entered the Daughter’s airless lair and found what looked like a model of the Olympic stadium assembled from empty Diet Coke cans. There were crumby toast plates and A4 files strewn over a wide area.

At the centre of this bomb-blast was a ghost-pale child who had her unwashed hair tied up in a scrunchy and was wearing what I can only describe as the casualwear of a prisoner on Death Row. She has been in that room, memorising pre-prepared answers, day and night for three weeks, taking occasional breaks to yell at members of her family who are foolish enough to inquire, “How are you getting on, sweetheart?”

I have lived the highs and lows with her to the point where I feel like I am sitting the damn exams myself. To this prolonged strain add that Cape Canaveral of the hormones that is the adolescent brain, and you have a recipe for… For what, exactly? Not education, that’s for sure, Mr Gove.

The Daughter and her fellow pupils are engaged in a marathon of rote-learning that would send your average gerbil completely off its wheel. It doesn’t matter if they’re good at a subject. (The idea of being naturally good at a subject is consigned to history, along with accurate spelling and flair.) Astonishingly, it doesn’t even seem to matter if they understand a subject. The only thing that matters is to regurgitate the correct gobbet of knowledge in the correct box.

On Sunday morning, I bumped into a fellow end-of-tether exam mum in Waitrose. She marvelled that her unscientific daughter was learning her entire chemistry file off by heart. “I don’t get it,” she said. “Rachel says she’s predicted to get an A, even though she’s no good at chemistry.”

My heart goes out to parents who have boys taking GCSEs. One mum I know has taken a week off work and set up a flip-chart with which she is trying to coach her sport-mad teenage lad through exams to which he is totally unsuited. “He’s the kind of kid who should leave school and get stuck into work,” she sighs, “but they’ve all got to get these GCSEs and stay on at school till they’re 18 or their life is over.”

Unlike girls, boys are not easily convinced of the virtues of conscientiousness, and the idea of sitting still for more than an hour, unless an Xbox is present, fills them with uncomprehending dread. Boys prefer to treat exams as a gunfight at the OK Corral, not a year in the blacking factory. And people call the year-on-year decline of boys’ performance in GCSEs “a mystery”!

What the hell happened? When I was at school, O-levels were a bump in the road, not a Himalayan ordeal. Our parents were barely aware what exams we were taking. Apart from supplying me with mugs of tea (two sugars) and cheese ’n’ pickle sandwiches, my mum let me get on with it. Back then, not even the swottiest of us did half the preparation many kids do today. Besides, my O-level summer of ’76 was so hot that the tarmac on the pavements melted and the lamp-posts came alive, dipping their heads like courting birds. We, the soon-to-be-examined, sunbathed in the back garden and pretended to revise while listening to the birds and the bees or, better still, the Bee Gees. (Thank you, Robin Gibb, RIP.)

The O-level was demanding. It required you to show you could actually apply your knowledge, not disgorge it like a drunk student on a Saturday night. You couldn’t take your set books into the English exam, nor a calculator into maths. Getting “only a B” was not generally agreed to be the end of life as we know it, as it is now in private or selective schools. (In 2012, an incredible quarter of all papers will be graded “A”.) Getting a C or D in the subjects you were rubbish at was fine because you were still allowed to be rubbish at some things, as humans tend to be, not expected to memorise stuff you didn’t have the first clue about and wouldn’t remember 10 minutes after you’d left the exam hall. And no one – but no one – was expected to get 10 As. Not Brains from Thunderbirds. Or even, with all due respect to Mr Gove, Brains from Aberdeen.

It’s not only parents like me who are fed up with this farcical ordeal. The CBI said this week that ministers should consider scrapping GCSEs because pupils’ education is being “seriously undermined” by exams taken at 16. John Cridland, CBI director-general, insists schools are giving short-term cramming priority over a proper grounding in the basics. Employers are obliged to provide remedial classes in the three Rs for new recruits, including those with five good passes at GCSE. Ask yourself, how can a teenager who has five GCSEs still be barely literate or numerate?

To sum up (as we were taught to conclude, back in prehistoric times when they still taught essay-writing), we have ended up with an exam that fails to stretch the most academically able and leaves the non-academic hopelessly prepared for work or checking the gas bill. This, Secretary of State, is not what you would call a result.

You know, I long to tell the Daughter that it really doesn’t matter. “Chillax, darling, and play some Fruit Ninja on the iPad, like the Prime Minister!” Unfortunately, it does matter. Universities, starved by grade inflation of reliable indicators of an individual candidate’s ability, have to take GCSE performance seriously.

The worst thing is that the stress won’t end with her last exam on June 21. In September, the Daughter will change schools and enter the sixth form, which should be a period of intellectual discovery, acting in plays, and exchanging ideas and saliva with charming members of the opposite sex. Instead, within three months, she will be required to sit AS papers, which will count towards her overall A-level results and, thus, her chance of a place at university. How would you like to take an exam, within three months of starting something new and scary, that could affect the course of your whole life?

The Daughter told me this week, on a rare pit-stop for food, that she is not sure she’ll be able to join the family on a holiday I’m planning for the New Year. “I’ll be revising for my ASes, Mum.”

I can’t tell you how angry that makes me, Mr Gove. Our children are the most over-examined in the developed world and yet among the least well-educated. How hard would it be to ditch AS level and provide challenging, O-level-style exams for academic kids, ones that would reveal both their strengths and (deep breath) weaknesses, plus vocational exams for the practically minded that could, for instance, have links with local businesses?

I find myself asking what my child will conceivably get out of these relentless days and nights of toil, apart from a giant sculpture made of empty Diet Coke cans. Maybe Tate Modern might like to exhibit it. Get Damien Hirst to give it a title: “The Impossibility of Education in the Minds of Those Taking GCSEs.”

No arguing, we need Joanna Lumley in the Lords

The great Joanna Lumley claims that she is totally unsuited to a career in politics because she “doesn’t really believe in democracy”. The 66-year-old actress and Gurkhas campaigner told a magazine: “I’m too bossy… I believe in a benevolent despotism. I’m a despot. I will say what is good for you and it will be good and kind, but I can’t have argue, argue, argue.”

How absolutely fabulous! Surely, this makes La Lumley perfect casting for politics? Only this week, we learnt that the Euro project was devised by men who didn’t believe in democracy either. According to Robert Peston’s riveting BBC2 documentary, The Great Euro Crash, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl knew that the people of Europe would never agree to a fiscal and political union. So, benevolent despots both, they went ahead, forcing the euro through for the greater good – or total financial catastrophe, as we now call it.

I notice that we all like our Prime Minister least when he is being democratic, politely asking Nick Clegg’s permission to do something that is clearly in the national interest. For the first time, David Cameron showed promisingly despotic tendencies yesterday when he said that Britain will not abide by a European directive and give some of our prisoners the vote. Quite right, Dave. Ask Joanna. No more argue, argue, argue. Just do what you feel like and to hell with everyone else; following the example of France, Greece, Italy and other EU members.

Personally, I hope Mr Cameron can get La Lumley into the House of Lords, where she can be bossy and despotic and cheer us all up. Arise, Dame Joanna, sweetie-darling.

Sheep’s placenta? Try smiling, pet

The world of Beauty Secrets always has a new, must-have youth elixir that is so much better than the last one and, coincidentally, twice the price. The latest folly is sheep-placenta facials, transported from New Zealand to Hollywood.

The treatment, based on a serum made of amniotic cells and gold flakes, prompts the response: ewe must be joking. Apparently, this hasn’t stopped it from becoming all the rage for super-rich women such as Victoria Beckham.

At a very reasonable £320 a time, Mrs B can have dermatologist Dr Harold Lancer apply afterbirth “fixes” to her skin, which are believed to harness the power of sheep’s stem cells. Baaa humbug!

Mrs B is also said to be keen on a “nightingale poop” facial made from “a rare bird found only on the Japanese island of Kyushu”. Do you think it comes in the actual nightingale? And is it true that Mrs Beckham, with her keen business sense, is shortly to export a product of her own in the opposite direction? New Zealanders will soon be applying Tears of a Silly Cow.

I have one beauty tip of my own for Mrs Beckham, which could work wonders, making her look instantly more youthful and radiant. It’s widely available, totally free of charge and I can guarantee she’s never tried it before. It’s called a smile.

Paul Champion

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Twitter: @blogapprentice
Skype: paulchampion31

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