The fated exam hall sends chills down most students spines... but not Mahnoor Cheema'scomedy_nose / Flickr /

Last week, several British news outlets reported on a 17-year-old who is studying 28 (yes, twenty-eight) A-Levels. In an interview given to The Times, Mahnoor Cheema argued that there is not enough support for “gifted students” to take on academic challenges, saying that “we are wasting so much talent in the UK”. She’s right: "gifted students" do need additional support. Just not in the way that she suggests.

So-called “gifted students” (I remain unconvinced by the term) should not be encouraged to attach their identity and self-worth to their grades. Rather, they should be given the space to find out who they are, how to look after themselves, and what they love and care about. The education system desperately needs to re-evaluate its definition of success, for the sake of our children’s feelings of purpose and identity. This isn’t to attack this particular student or to tell her to change. Instead, it is to say that this case is representative of a widespread culture of toxic productivity, a problem which is concentrated among Cambridge – and other Russell Group – students.

“This case is representative of a widespread culture of toxic productivity”

The current ethos tells students that in order to be successful, they need to achieve flawless grades, attend a prestigious university, and be generally good at everything they do. This aspiration to academic perfection is often a product of government policy, exemplified by the establishment of league tables and Ofsted in 1992, which rewarded schools simply for producing good examination results. These features of bureaucracy scarcely include contextual considerations, meaning that many “high achieving” schools are highly selective with their students and focus entirely on their academic output.

But symptoms of this problem date back even further than 1992, as this culture was arguably formalised and entrenched by the structure of our school system. Take the existence of grammar schools, where children must correctly answer absurd questions about shape patterns and verb conjugations to even get in. This means that while some 11-year-olds are told they make up the top 25% of the country, with their grammar school attendance equated to success, the remainder are deemed failures. Private schools, too, operate in a similar model, rewarding students for their grades rather than personal development following an even more exclusive selection process.

“Some 11-year-olds are told they make up the top 25% of the country”

Living in a grammar school area has given me a very personal connection to the contradictions inherent within this culture. I failed the 11-plus and went to a supposedly “worse” non-selective school (in many ways it wasn’t), before moving to a grammar sixth form. The schools were barely a five-minute drive from each other, but their approaches to learning were on different planets. For young people whose parents could not justify the extortionate costs of the tutoring necessary to somehow make sense of the ‘verbal and non-verbal reasoning’ component of the 11-plus exam, the benefits of a ‘meritocratic society’ feel far, far away.

This difference in approach was epitomised by the “assessments” which took the place of A-Levels during the Covid pandemic. For a start, we were faced with roughly 30 hours of exams over two months. This was wildly unnecessary, particularly when 18-year-olds were processing coming out of lockdown. In one of these exams, I “slipped up” – by scoring a mere 19/25 instead of my normal 22 – and was met with a disapproving “What happened?” from my teacher. By contrast, I did similar before my GCSEs at my non-selective high school, and my teacher casually asked if I was alright and didn’t make a big deal of it. At the grammar, it was a results business, with one subject continuing to teach throughout the May half-term to “get ahead” during lockdown (priorities, eh?).

“It was better to get little sleep and feel burned out, but still bag that A*”

It was better to get little sleep and feel burned out, but still bag that A*, than to strike a healthy balance and get a B. It was, of course, possible to score highly and strike a balance – I think I managed this – but it wasn’t encouraged. So many (understandably) developed unhealthy sleep schedules and felt competition within their relationships. But no one batted an eyelid at these teenagers’ habits or potential learning difficulties, so long as they kept producing results. Sound familiar?

The legacy of this culture is apparent, and consistently perpetuated, at Cambridge. So many of us stay up in the early hours to finish our work. Ah, you’ve finished an essay? Onto the next. You’re never done. Feelings of guilt, often more than competition, are common. Many of us could probably benefit from remembering why we chose to rack up thousands in debt to spend three years studying what we love.


Mountain View

Why private schools should be abolished

Let’s redefine success from day one of the schooling process. I’m not suggesting this sixth-form student needs to stop doing 28 A-Levels. I am suggesting that children and young adults deserve an education system which rewards learning to love themselves, developing fun hobbies, and being driven by curiosity and purpose, rather than fear and pressure.