Farewell to Schooledemia

The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester.

The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester., my own alma mater.

[Advice for readers for whom English is not their first language: “Schooledemia” is not a real word.]

It is now one week since my eldest son took his last public exam, and with ‘proms’ and parties concluded, his school days are now over.

He seems fairly nonchalant – off for a week’s holiday with his friends – but I am still stunned.

I am not surprised – obviously – because I have known this day was coming. But I am shocked: was that it?

Part of what has confused me is that I can recall vividly specific days in his academic life:

  • Looking in on him in the playground at infant school;
  • Seeing him off on his first day at Secondary School;

These days seem like they were yesterday.

And my youngest son has also completed his GCSE’s – another milestone.

So having been critical of these exams in the past, I just thought I would make a note about my parental experience of these exams.


My overwhelming impression of GCSE’s is that while my son has learned a lot, exam standards are much too low.

This has resulted in pervasive ‘gaming’ of the exams – with schools coaching students to answer questions in specific ways in order to match the examiner’s ritualised concept of a correct answer.

This is not to say that students don’t work hard, or that teachers don’t teach well. But in the subjects that I care about most – Maths and Physics – the knowledge of teachers in state schools is (in general) abysmal. And students know it.

This causes teachers to focus on ‘getting marks in the exam‘. And if ever an approach were design to kill inspiration or curiosity – this is it.

I can’t offer any solutions, but that is what I see.

‘A’ levels

My impression of ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics and German is that they are really quite difficult. But I think again that they are still not difficult enough.

In order to get in to prestigious universities, students need to achieve almost perfect exam scores, and – as someone who has always been very far from perfect – I distrust perfectionists.

The purpose of exams

The purpose of exams is to discriminate against pupils who demonstrate less ability to pass exams.

Their purpose is to select the academically brightest in the same way that the purpose of a high jump is to select the people who can jump the highest – its an artificial test – but so are all tests. And tests are only meaningful if people fail.

I have all kinds of suggestions for particular things that could be done to enable this process to take place while retaining fairness, but in fact my interest in the whole process is waning.

In honesty I feel only relief that my own children’s interaction with the educational system is nearing its end. And sympathy for the teachers who have to put up with the apparently endless series of ‘improvements’ that never seem to fundamentally change the reality on the ground.







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