Louis Ashworth

This week, Labour unveiled their plans to scrap SATs tests for 7- and 11-year olds as part of a drive to ‘prepare children for life, not exams.’ The idea has been warmly received by many teachers who have bemoaned the impact of high pressure testing on children’s mental health and pointed out the rising levels of stress and anxiety amongst students. Others have criticised it as a threat to the effort to maintain high standards in UK education.

Surely, though, the claim that our education has become an exercise in exam technique, rather than the promotion of the the growth of useful skills and experiences, is not without its merits. This issue is not restricted to primary education. Throughout school, students seem to be encouraged to look at the next stage of their lives in terms of grades and entry requirements. Even in this university, life beyond Cambridge seems to exist almost in a different world, one which Cambridge students may be less prepared for than others.

"Students at Cambridge are kept well and truly inside the bubble, often shielded from any real kind of independent living"

Particularly in the context of a Cambridge exam term, the idea that education should help to prepare children for the world beyond school remains a problem. Students at Cambridge are kept well and truly inside the bubble and are often shielded from any real kind of independent living. In most colleges, students have bedders that empty their bins and clean their rooms; Emmanuel students even have a laundry service within college. Food is provided in college halls or butteries three times a day. There are no interactions with landlords for most students, as colleges provide accommodation throughout the duration of the degree.

Of course, these services are privileges in many ways. They allow us to save students time and effort. However, more sinisterly, the existence of these provisions suggests that students should spend whatever time they save on working on their degree. As we enter exam term, this seems to highlight the skewed priorities of colleges with regards to their students. Apparently the average Cantab is expected to be working so much that they barely have time to cook or clean for themselves. Indeed, many are not given the option — it is not all that uncommon for a shared kitchen to consist of little more than a microwave in a cupboard.

As we are all adults, it seems strange for students to remain in such a dependent state. Students are treated almost as the wards of colleges, in a relationship that can be somewhat infantilising. Bedders, who often have keys to enter students’ rooms, can take on a kind of parental role. Whilst at other universities students move out of halls as part of a transition to more independent living, studying in Cambridge can feel like living in some sort of archaic boarding school. After all, it’s not too long ago that students at Corpus were being threatened with cleaning duty for having overnight guests without permission, and where college control extended to the policing of students’ relationships. This makes it difficult to escape the temptation to conclude that Cambridge is a place more suited to producing investment bankers than happy, functional human beings.

Studying in Cambridge can feel like living in some sort of archaic boarding school.

Aside from the sometimes-claustrophobic environment in colleges, the university’s rule that paid work cannot be undertaken during term time reflects another one of the Bubble’s distorting influences. Students have previously pointed out the unspoken preference in Cambridge for participation in societies rather than part time jobs. It certainly seems odd that it is considered normal for students to row seven times a week in exam term but working to support your studies is banned. This seems to reflect a disconnect between the skills and experience that are valued within a Cambridge context and those which will actually help students once they enter the ‘real world.’

Cambridge students are encouraged to learn how to deal with heavy workloads, but not how to take care of themselves properly on a daily basis. As much as all the services provided by the university can be a help as students prepare for exams, they also prevent us from gaining some experience of independence that could help as we prepare to enter the real world. If primary school children are expected to start some kind of preparation for life, then adults at Cambridge should do the same.

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