Now that my last set of school exams are over, there’s a huge sense of relief. Three months of summer and freedom await before an entirely new adventure begins. What better way to begin than with a blog post? During the course of my exams, I have observed a number of things about the British education system that I feel are worth sharing.
The issue that I will focus on in this particular post is pressure. Since sitting my IGCSEs and GCSEs in 2013, it seems as if the pressure on all students to succeed has been ramped up by a few notches. I read an article in The Telegraph recently concerning measures being taken at a girls’ school in the south of England to address the growing pressure on students. I’d like to start by trying to understand why the pressure on students has grown to the extent it has in what seems like such a short space of time.
For A-Level students, pressure is hardly surprising: one bad question can be the difference between securing a place at a firm choice university or a sightly inferior insurance choice. The stakes are high. It is not quite as severe for AS students: a strong set of AS results will not necessarily get you into a top university, but a weak set can certainly close doors. It is interesting to note here that the pressure seems to be significantly higher for those seeking places at top universities: from the experience of my own year group, offer holders at The University of Cambridge for science subjects have scored at least 95% of the available UMS (Uniform Marks) at AS. Getting ‘only’ 93% could potentially harm your chances. What is a little more puzzling is the amounts of pressure on GCSE students. I am not for one moment saying here that IGCSE and GCSE exams are not important; for those who have just sat them, they are the most important set of assessments in your academic careers to date. Yet it seems as if a slightly under-par set of results spells eternal doom.
Dare I say it, but I feel that many students are sledging down a slippery slope of reasoning with little chance of slowing themselves down. Competition for university places is increasing continually. This naturally means that universities would look for the small differences between individual applicants to see who merits an offer, and who does not. Hence, it’s important to consistently achieve highly academically. There is almost a perception that an under-par set of results at what is a relatively early stage precludes certain university options. I don’t believe that this is true: there are plenty of people who have secured entry to some of the best academic institutions in the country without a stellar set of results.
So, this is the situation. The fear of failure grows ever stronger within the students of the UK. But why is this a problem? It is obvious that one cannot perform at their best in a task if there is a fear that the result will not be the best possible. As a result of my own experiences, I firmly believe that the psychological element of this is an issue that needs to be looked at in greater detail than seems apparent to the general public. The fear of failure, I feel, is tied up with a fixation on the results of an exam. This means that during the process of revision, there is a constant worry that getting a question incorrect on a past paper will result in not getting a certain grade. Dropping even a single mark becomes a cause for concern. In extreme cases, this can extend to assessments that have no bearing on the final grade of a qualification being given undue importance. I have seen this attitude in the typical after-exam discussion too: the first thing students are doing is trying to work out exactly how many marks they have lost to determine their chances of getting a certain grade.
There is a further impact on the revision process, which really hit me around a week before my exams started; the best way to describe it is that students are turning into robots. During study leave, students are utterly consumed by a need to know every single bit of the syllabus inside out so that not a mark is dropped when it comes to the exam. They start to think that a chemical equation or a Latin verb will define their future. It sounds ridiculous when written here, doesn’t it? Thirteen years of full-time education somehow boils down to whether or not you can integrate a function correctly. We are essentially programming ourselves to do revision with the result being a certain grade, just like a robot is programmed to do certain tasks with certain results. Those functions which are to be integrated are certainly important, but they are not life-defining. There is much more to human life than exam results, and when you are caught up in exam revision, it is difficult to realise that. Some even refuse to let themselves think about anything else, and as a result become caught up in a mental web with a large exam paper sat in the middle wrapping up weaker candidates in question-silk.
I have already alluded to some methods of coping with the stress of exams in an earlier post entitled The Race and the Pressure Cooker. Yet I feel that the current situation means that I need to go into greater detail about this. I shall start by tackling the last problem which I mentioned: the solution for this is reasonably simple and will vary from person to person, but essentially entails doing something which removes yourself from the mindset of exam thinking. Naturally, there is a danger to this: removing oneself from an examination mindset can lead to procrastination, but I feel that the benefits outweigh the potential risks, as it allows one to return to revision with a clear mind. Meditation, or mindfulness (as it is known in some quarters) is another useful tool that I have found particularly effective in the run-up to my final A-Level exams. Even if this is only done for five minutes at first, a short amount of time spent listening to one’s own thoughts can reveal a great deal. I have found that I can see clearly what has gone well during the day, and what has gone badly; this means I can adapt the following day’s revision if necessary. Meditation has also allowed me to think about life in general. Having exams is not, and should not, in my opinion, be a barrier to personality and character development. The increasingly robotic nature of students that I mentioned above seems to stand in the way of this.
I’m sure it has been stated before by many teachers that gazing at the tiny screen of a phone is not an adequate break from revision. Around a year ago, I probably would have dismissed this statement, but having spent study leave trying out alternate revision breaks, I couldn’t agree more. There’s something about these infernal devices that prevents us from escaping the revision and exam mentality. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone has been talking about exams and revision on social media instead of revising. What has become abundantly clear to me in the last five weeks is that Twitter really isn’t as interesting as I thought it was. To reiterate: the methods that each student uses as a break from revision will vary from person to person, but the key aspect, in my view, is that you do not become stuck in one way of thinking.
So, here ends my first post on the vagaries of the British education system. There’s plenty more to come, including my thoughts on coursework, the nature of exams, and a certain question about sweets…