Examinations are a defining factor of the British educational system from our earliest years David Hawgood

As children we are told that school is a given; it is an ultimate and unquestionable presence, and thus the institution becomes our sole understanding of education. That education may exist outside of the standardised tests and exams which constitute our educational experience from the age of four remains unthinkable to children. I believe this is incredibly damaging.

The schooling system in the UK treats education as a mission of ‘attainment’; progress being singular and linear, judged by exam results and little else. The setting children encounter when they first step into school is reflective of the judgment, measurement and comparison that will define the rest of their experience in educational establishments. The all-important ‘word-wall’ on which children’s spelling, reading and language was measured and ranked in a hierarchy based on ability marks my own memory of my early experience in education. We need to move away from an understanding of learning that assumes intellect and ability is measurable on a standardised scale. Yet the current educational policies of the government, guided by misinformation and neoliberal ideology, are doing exactly the opposite.

“Entering school at such a young age, how are children expected to be equipped to deal with brutal intellectual comparison, based on a misinformed understanding of the learning process?”

Indeed, children entering school today face a much more intensely narrow and restrictive educational process than I did, with ‘rigour’ emphasised, arts devalued, and spelling and ‘first, fast and only’ phonics tests ubiquitous. Such a notion of education and intellect is painfully devoid of all nuanced understanding of how children and adults learn. This is more than just a policy issue. It is a fundamental problem with the way we, as a society, understand and value the learning process.

A state-educated student myself, I am all too familiar with the normalisation of testing, something which I came to see in its true damaging and unnecessary light during the several years of primary school for which I was home educated. My parents, dissatisfied with the way our local state-school accommodated for (or rather, didn’t accommodate for) my brother’s dyslexia, offered both my brother and me the choice to be home educated. Thus, me, my brother and my mum spent several years outside of traditional education; talking, reading, discussing. Despite a very occasional ‘lesson’ in maths (which essentially consisted of all three of us battling through some simple division), it looked from the traditional homogenous lens of education that I had nothing to show for those crucial years, i.e. the all-important SATs years. However, when I decided I wanted to return to school years later, instead of being bottom of the class, I excelled. It turns out all those years spent reading books we actually enjoyed and talking about ideas, I had actually been learning.

For me, this was a formative realisation; that education is not limited to the institution of education, a notion which, incidentally, is definitive of the attitude to learning at Cambridge. So why do we still promote a system of education that is neither efficient in educating, nor enjoyable for students and teachers alike?


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I can say with assurance that without my experience of home education I would not be studying at Cambridge today. But this is not just an issue of how many students from ‘normal’ backgrounds get into Oxbridge. The issue is much wider than that. Entering school at such a young age, how are children expected to be equipped to deal with brutal intellectual comparison, based on a misinformed understanding of the learning process? To understand that they may learn at a different pace or in a different way to the child next to them? Furthermore, how are they expected to see that the binary and restrictive path of education lauded by the system is not in fact the only, or the real, signifier of intelligence? And even more salient: how still, from all of this, are children ever going to come to love learning?

A system of education that sets, judges and compares, that does not recognise that children learn at different paces and in different ways, and that destroys all passion for learning, is a terrible and destructive thing. This system then influences where those students end up in later life, students who, because of their location at the bottom of a reception ‘word wall’, never believed in their ability. Children who, in those formative years, subscribed to the narrative of intellectual conformity into which they were predestined by a society with no open mind, no nuance, are being failed by a government that favours ‘rigour’ and routinisation over independent thought and a real passion for knowledge

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