THOUSANDS OF school students have been agonising over their A level and GCSE results in the last two weeks. Last week's A level results were the best ever, with the number of young people getting grades A to E up 1.1 percent to 95.4 percent of all those who take the exams. This week's GCSE results were expected to show a similar trend.
Yet, instead of congratulating their success, university chiefs, right wing commentators and the mainstream press have added to students' worries by moaning about falling standards. The right wing claim that A levels are getting easier or that young people are taking so called 'soft options' like psychology or media studies. The top universities say too many people are getting A grades-as if it were a crime for so many pupils to do well.
This is pure elitism. They want to justify creaming off a tiny minority into the top first class institutions. University chiefs want to find an excuse to put up top-up fees – making higher education even further out of reach for those from working class backgrounds. Right wing former chief Ofsted inspector Chris Woodhead said on Radio 4 that A levels were 'not identifying the most gifted students for top universities'.
This week the elite Oxford, Cambridge and University College London universities announced new 'supertests' for medical, veterinary and biomedical students. They want to introduce similar tests for law, computer science, economics and other subjects.
This whole process is the logic of New Labour's drive towards selection, relentless testing, league tables and competition in education. Education secretary Charles Clarke boasts about creating a 'fundamentally market-based' education system.
The government has created a two-tier system where schools in leafy suburbs get better resources and come out on top, while those in poorer areas are shoved to the bottom. This competitive logic has seen middle class families sell up their houses to move to areas with 'good' schools.
And it is the same logic that has seen the constant assessing and testing of children and young people from the moment they enter the school system. The government claims it believes in education as a process of self development. But more and more of a young person's life is taken up with studying and cramming for exams, rather than developing abilities and exploring ideas.
New Labour's introduction of AS levels, taken the year before A levels, has doubled the number of exams sixth formers take, adding to the intense stress they face.
It can mean students taking as many as 23 external exams in just 18 months. As one AS level student, Stella Pagliani, put it, 'It was a big step from GCSE-it was too stressful. We spent the whole year preparing for the exam instead of learning anything.'
This relentless testing regime is designed to sort children into 'failures' and 'successes'. They are judged and graded like so many eggs on a factory packing line. How you do in an exam doesn't reflect a person's real talents, work and skills, let alone their character and personality.
It merely tests how good a person is at going through an examination system, biased in favour of those from middle class backgrounds anyway. According to one survey school students find the pressure of homework and exams more stressful than bullying, worrying about their appearance or whether they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend.
A parliamentary education select committee report earlier this year found that hundreds of thousands of school students face 'unacceptable levels of stress' because of constant testing.
A young person's whole future can be determined by how they did on one day, in one exam. Their futures can be wrecked just because they got a D rather than a C. But every study shows that what grade you get in A levels bears no relationship to how well you do in your degree at university.
'Education has become a treadmill for passing exams'
FRAN Postlethwaite teaches GCSE English in Barnsley. She says, 'We can't win. If the results are down, then we've all failed. If they've gone up, they say standards have declined. In my experience the GCSEs have got more difficult. There's a huge amount of work-a wider range of literary texts and poetry is studied. I teach children who are doing ten, 11 and 12 GCSEs-this was unheard of 30 years ago. On top of that children are tested heavily all the way through. Education has become a treadmill for passing exams. The whole notion of broadening children's experience, of widening their horizons, has been pushed out of the window. Children are judged by grades on bits of paper which don't reflect people's full and rounded personalities. This undermines the whole idea of opening up education to wider numbers and to not have a vocational and academic divide.'
Dave Gibson teaches A levels at a further education college. He says, 'Students come here after taking their GCSEs and within 15 weeks of starting they have to take their first exam. It's a non-stop exam treadmill that puts students under huge pressure. And it means we teach no more than a globule of knowledge, all geared to passing exams. The government's aim with Curriculum 2000 was supposed to stimulate more rounded education and take away the stigma of vocational subjects. It's been a dismal failure as the whole exam culture militates against this. Exactly the same is happening with the SATs tests in schools-narrowing down education.'
Figure it out
105 is the astonishing number of tests sat by school students between the ages of five and 16.
46 is the number of weeks 11 to 18 year old students spend revising for and doing exams. This is longer than a school year.
Reality behind the exam row
WHAT class background you are from is the main factor which determines how well pupils do at every stage in the education system. If you've got access to computers, books, educational trips plus time and help from your parents, you are far more likely to sail through the exam process.
But children from working class, both manual and white collar, backgrounds are more likely to be branded 'failures', and have their confidence and self esteem damaged.
Less than one fifth of those from a working class background go on to higher education.
Children from the top two richest social groups are three times more likely to get the A levels needed for university.
Every year around 40,000 leave school with no qualifications whatsoever.
Only a third stay on to take A levels-the other two thirds are expected to take low paid, routine manual or white collar jobs.
According to government figures, children from the most advantaged families are more than three times as likely to attain five or more higher grade GCSEs as those who are poorer. This doesn't include the 7 percent of pupils in private schools.
In the 100 schools with the highest number of pupils on free school meals only 30 percent of students gain five Cs at GCSE or above.
In the 100 schools with the lowest number on free school meals, 93 percent of students get five grade Cs or above.