On Exam Season

It's exam season, and this year we are feeling it in our house .... Our eldest son is about to sit his GCSEs - 15 exams over the next 5 weeks or so. And our second son, who opted to follow his brother into school in September, will be sitting GCSE English Literature in just a few weeks time. Two different boys, two very different learners. But just the looming shadow of exams brings home to me once more how much I hate and object to testing.


It is over eight years since I deregistered the boys from the school system which had so disappointed me. I deregistered an anxious boy from whose eyes the light of joyful learning had been extinguished, a boy who had learned to sit down and shut up, silencing his primary means of learning about the world, which is to ask questions. I deregistered too, with more qualms, his brother - just a year younger - who was compliant and what I would have called 'happy' at school. Except, it turns out, he wasn't. He was just compliant, which is not the same thing.

One of my chief objections to the schooling system was the culture of testing, the shadow of SATS, dominating the early summer skyline in primary schools up and down our country, seeping into the system and shaping the curriculum, the priorities, the focus. With numeracy and literacy at the forefront, the creative, artistic curriculum was being squeezed out. And headteachers, their staff and, ultimately, children, too, felt that ominous shadow keenly even then.

And so I opted out. Some people probably think this is a cop-out, that we need to remain within the schools, within the system to push for change. And I am glad there are people doing that. But if I had waited for that culture of testing to get better, for the pendulum of government policy to swing, which it inevitably must, surely, sometime soon .... If I had waited, it would have been too late for my children. For the system has only gotten worse in these past 8 years. If we hoped that the play-based philosophy of the early years would press upwards to reclaim Years 1 and 2, we would be disappointed to see instead the more formal, sedentary, test-oriented philosophy of Year 1 press downwards, now threatening to claim reception and even our nursery classes. It would have been too late for my children. And so I do not regret taking them out, and giving them the broad education all children deserve, free from the judgement of testing and performance ratings. I do not regret it. Because performance ratings have come to matter more than the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and children alike.

But now our boys are growing up, and we are facing GCSEs - and it feels just the same all over again, the sausage-factory exam machine is in full, glorious swing. And parents' evenings are all about working levels, outcomes and predicted grades, not really about our children. A curriculum is delivered to be learned and regurgitated for the purpose of the test. And I am appalled at the need in this modern age to learn quotes from numerous pieces of literature to be regurgitated on cue in the exam hall, which is great if you have a good memory, and an absolute nightmare if you do not. Or your mind goes blank. Because you're just not too good in an exam situation. Or you get stressed. Or your gifts are in other areas. Tough luck. The measuring sticks are out. How will you measure up? And how will you compare to your peers?

That is my objection. Children are not commodities to be so processed and measured. They are unique human beings, each with their own particular strengths and gifts, each deserving their chance to shine. And I do not believe our current system provides that opportunity, no matter how old they are.

These past two days, my oldest son had refused to go to school because he wants to study for his exams in his own way. He finds the organised revision sessions in the classroom distracting, not helpful. He has his own study plan, and he just wants to get on with it. So what do I do? I am not prepared to fight him at this stage, to get him into school - What would I be fighting him for? Rather he needs my support, so that he can study in the way that he deems best for himself. He knows the way he works. But schools want control. They have a responsibility. Gone is any trust, such as was exhibited by the study leave I had when I did my GCSEs almost thirty years ago. I know study leave might not suit all students .... But could it not be acknowledged that it will suit some? Can we not move away from this one size fits all? Because it never will.

As we navigate this exam season, there is one big difference and that is that the boys are sitting GCSEs by consent. They are at school by consent because that is the way they have chosen to tackle this stage of their education. But for younger children, there is no consent about school or about SATs. They are passive recipients of a test-driven curriculum, rather than active participants in their own education. Education is being done to them, and to that I still, and will continue to, object.