School was a place for education in its broadest sense. Exams were the add-on that I, as a high school reject, did not have to face and certainly was not trained to take. They were for the smart boys who wore blazers and rode racing bikes.
The sink school I attended focused on different things other than academic qualifications. Those of us in the top set were told that in the last year we would take a CSE exam. The teacher told us not to worry if we failed them as they weren’t worth the paper they were written on.
Instead, it seemed as if the whole reason of the school was for us to have our minds opened and broadened. To this end, Westwood County Modern took the ‘green-backed gutter snipes’ and turned them into men.
In my last year at that school, I was taught how to put together a BSA engine, ride a motorbike, fire a rifle and sail a yacht. I could change a plug, wire a lamp and make shovels out of metal.
My first-year English class started to read King Solomon’s Mines. Two years later we had got to page 36. In between I had been taken on a global adventure of learning as the tutor brought in every thread of English literature that he could. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Browning all had their work shared.
We would never be asked an exam question about them but even now many, many years later their words and those of a library of other writers can be repeated from my heart.
In my first week at school, I was taught how to play chess. It appeared to be compulsory as was learning how to roll a fag and having your head stuck down a flushing toilet if you upset one of the bigger lads.
History lessons were no-holds-barred exposes of the British way of life. The classroom was decked out in flags, swords and handcuffs. A hand grenade sat on the teacher’s desk next to a 3ft cane. It was not the place for any easily-offended snowflakes.
I got one O-level, but I had an amazing education and my general knowledge was second to none. I had been prepared for life in an adult world and along with all my friends, was fit for the workplace. I had a reading age well beyond my years and was fluent in maths tables up to 20.
How things have changed. Those in Government appear to be obsessed with measuring attainment of pupils through exam results alone. Schools use their results as a banner of achievement in league tables.
It is worrying that schools are having to neglect a teacher-led education in favour of training children to pass an exam.
There is no room or time for pupils to be really creative. Teachers have to stick to task and teach to the test. Reading a full book is often being replaced with a single piece of text or a sample chapter. The words – “this is what you will need for the exam” – become a mantra repeated time and time again.
The exams pupils sit today are essentially the same as the system introduced in 1858. This aimed to rank school leavers on their ability to recall information and apply standard methods.
In 2016, a report from the Institute of Directors called for a major overhaul of the exam system, so that pupils will be “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information”.
The study raised serious concerns that UK education policy was turning our schools into exam factories, squeezing out creativity and the joy of learning at a time when these very attributes are becoming increasingly important.
Education should ignite the mind and feed our inquisitiveness. Its purpose has to be about expanding our knowledge and making us more tolerant and open people. It should never be about passing exams.
The charity Childline say that fears about exams are rising quickly. Some children are turning to self-harm and having suicidal thoughts. It is not just GCSEs that cause anxiety. SATS are causing even our youngest school children to experience worry and fear over not getting good results.
It is time to stop this madness and make schools places of joy and discovery – and not exam factories that cause misery and pain.