What’s the point of school?
I always remember a friend being told by his Oxford tutor that he “exemplified negative learning and knew less in week eight of term than he did in week one”. To be fair my friend was not the most industrious student, and his busy social life and frequent late nights may well have been responsible for his academic demise.
The idea that school or university can be places of ‘unlearning’ rather than bastions of useful knowledge was also the subject of a recent Giles Coren thought-piece. He opined that “school ruined me and it will ruin my daughter. In the internet age there’s no point in knowing stuff anymore. Education just stifles your creative spark”. He goes on to suggest, perhaps tongue in cheek, that most subject learning is pointless and that the main purpose of school is to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. Coren is not alone in being ‘anti school’, and last week an international lobby of 130 experts warned that formal education should be delayed until the age of six or seven on the grounds that early education could be damaging to children.
So is school pointless and, even worse, potentially bad for you? That depends. By definition education should be an ‘enlightening experience’. Educational institutions are self-evidently beneficial; the issue is over what goes on in them. The current debate about early years education highlights the need for balance – a mix of formal learning and informal play. Both are important to a child’s development. Young children do need to become confident in their use of words and numbers, but they also need play to develop their creativity, imagination, communication and physical skills.
At secondary level children suffer when schools lose balance and become exam factories. In such schools the pursuit of examination excellence can lead to the proliferation of model ‘right’ answers and criticism for anything that is ‘wrong’. In these situations fear of failure can curb intellectual enthusiasm, and students become frustrated as their own ideas are overlooked in favour of permitted mark scheme responses. Teachers desperately trying to improve their school’s A* – C ratios can drill children in examination techniques, killing off creativity and independent thinking and replacing it with ‘exam speak’.
The exam system also promotes a risk-averse culture. Top students aiming for A* grades at A level need to achieve 90% or more in their A2 modules. They cannot afford to lose any marks. Some decide the best way to success is through ‘mainstream perfectionism’, playing it safe rather than trying anything different.
Yet the requirement to examine knowledge may not be the root cause of the problem. Exams certainly help pupils focus, and the extra hours they work in the run-up to exams raises levels of achievement. However the downside of public exams sat by thousands of pupils and marked by hundreds of examiners is that consistency of marking can only be achieved through the application of prescriptive mark schemes. Especially in subjective subjects, standard marking to agreed criteria is required for fair outcomes, yet the pursuit of fairness can mean that creative and original responses go unrewarded; for many exams it is better to think inside, rather than outside, the box.
As long as universities and employers judge applicants according to GCSE and A level marks grades schools will be tempted to teach to the test. However, good schools know that excellent public exam results are just one outcome of a good education. Good schools work hard to go beyond the requirements of the examined curriculum, helping students discover interests and equipping them with the essential intellectual skills they need for happy and successful lives. Skills such as a love of learning; intellectual curiosity; the ability to synthesise information and identify relevance, patterns, errors, bias and significance; the capability to formulate and test a hypothesis; excellent written and oral communication and ability to structure an argument; and originality and freedom of thought. All of which are certainly necessary for exam success, but even more useful for life. Far from stifling their ‘creative spark’, good schools give students the tools to harness it. That’s the point of school.