May is the cruellest month. The sun is shining, the woods are in leaf, the birds are singing. And everyone between the ages of 13 and 23 seems to be bent over their books studying for exams.
Of all the initiation rites into adulthood used by human societies, our prolonged periods of studying and examinations seem unusual. Unlike killing a lion, climbing a mountain, or drinking large quantities of the local brew, our exams are not just opportunities that you either pass or fail. They are graded: our children are set against one another. They are sorted into sheep or goats, and those that do very well are rewarded with a great deal of praise.
Are our exams useful? Surely they must be: parents clamour to get their children into schools that get good exam results, and governments agonize over exams. Here in the UK there have been repeated public arguments about our exam system; it is in a permanent state of being overhauled.
But it is all too easy to become obsessed with exam grades – they are almost too easily recorded, monitored and traded. These strings of letters are lazy substitutes for accurately assessing the real abilities and value of young human beings, the quality of a teacher, or the success of a school. My children’s teachers drum it into them that their future depends upon these exams. Some of my children’s teachers never speak to me about my children without pulling up their predicted grades on the computer first: while I am talking to them about my child, they speak only about the grades. The child has become that string of letters. Sometimes those letters are translated into real emotions: my daughter prompts a smile – she is always predicted good results – my son a scowl – his results are poor.
I speak as someone for whom exams were very useful in their day. I was good at them, they opened doors for me, they helped me escape from the limitations of the world I was raised in. But they were artificial gates to the adult world; they did not, in themselves, give me much of lasting value. Over time I have found that the things that have been most valuable were things that cannot be studied or examined. I have found, for example, that understanding how people work, and how to be kind, have been much more useful in my daily business than an ability to analyse the language of Shakespeare in a 60 minute essay.
At their worst, the exams damage the mental health of some youngsters. My son is coping badly with exams. They emphasize his weaknesses, and his teachers are convinced that he is lazy or uncooperative, when he is actually desperate. He feels he is a failure before he has even started life, and he is beginning to give up. It is in vain that I try to explain to him that, even if he failed all of these exams, his life would go on – and in fact, would probably work out as he wants, given time.
Every time a teacher says a child “must” do something, perhaps someone else should be asking why.