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Reform Magazine | September 28, 2020

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Editorial: The measure of success

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There’s no surer way to show your age than by complaining about how education has changed. Apart from complaining about your aches and pains, I suppose, but I’ll spare you that for now.

I have fond memories of my O levels (yeah, proper O levels, not these so-called GCSEs they have nowadays). I’ve always enjoyed persecuting my children by wishing I could join them in that old exam hall, the lucky blighters. Some of that O level learning has stuck with me till today, and will be the last bits of brain to drop off: 1832; malleus, incus and stapes; the inert gases; ‘Diana’s lip/Is not more smooth and rubious’.

What has shocked me, as the father of exam-aged children for several years, and being related to many teachers, is the colossal proportion of school time now devoted to exam studies. My generation was taught the syllabus, then expected to revise it and show under exam conditions how much we had learned; today’s generation are drilled endlessly in the entirely worthless skill of writing to formulae and passing exams. Their opportunity to learn about actual subjects suffers proportionally.

The problem is, as O level physics may or may not tell us (didn’t take it), measuring something changes it. To measure education by exams is to make teachers teach stuff that can be tested. Introduce school league tables and you force schools into a merciless competition not to educate children but to harvest grades.

None of which nostalgic pontification will be particularly helpful to students throughout the UK who went through emotional commotion after tin-eared algorithms, applied to insufficient data, slashed their expected grades in half, before governments backed down. Pity the education ministers who have to find a realistic way to allocate grades in a time of pandemic. But in Westminster, at least, this episode rather seemed to fit the pattern we’ve seen since December of a government underprepared for the admittedly very difficult job that faces it.

Again, measuring something changes it. Elections are how we measure which is the fittest party to govern us, but they risk giving us leaders who greatest skill is winning elections rather than governing.

Sigh. Trump, Brexit, Covid, climate, populism, division, fake news, no this is fake news, the frailty of democracy, the fragility of civilisation…

Leroy Logan says in this month’s interview: ‘We just cannot allow weariness to win.’ Part of me cries: ‘Preach it!’ Another part says: ‘Ooh, my aches and pains! How did it get this hard to get out of a chair? Where do those people get the energy from? I’m a martyr to my knees.’

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This article was published in the September 2020 edition of Reform

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