I watch my 16-year-old boy’s spark and his cracking sense of humour drain from him every time he approaches his exams. He is 16. This year alone he will take a total of some 60 mock or real exams.
When a cycle of mock exams is over, he comes alive again. For a short window of a few weeks, he is light on his feet and joyful. He jokes around, talks to us for longer than five minutes at a time and socialises with his friends. He is young again. Until the preparation for the next cycle of exams weighs down on him, a barbell too heavy to lift. The grind reactivates and life becomes black and white, tedious, flat.
The other day my son remarked that everything in his life had been decided for him by the government, before concluding somewhat apathetically that he felt trapped. I was alarmed. He is only 16. It’s much too early to feel trapped, isn’t it? Surely that’s a feeling reserved for people in middle age.
In all honesty, neither of my boys have ever been too excited about the learning they’ve done in school, despite achieving very good grades throughout and excelling at their secondary school entry exams at 11. I have always been concerned about this lack of enthusiasm, have lamented over it and wondered about its origin. This year has produced the definitive answer. My boys are simply bored and uninspired at school. The heavily exam-based, sedentary, desk-confined system of education actively beats the creativity and physicality out of them.
“I believe this passionately: that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it”, creative education guru Sir Ken Robinson once said.
This GCSE year, marked by its 60-odd exams, takes the education system’s “there-is-one-right-answer” ethos to its very limit. Its intensity makes it feel like some extreme, dystopian, endless, educational quiz challenge that for reasons unclear to me our society seems to accept as normal.
I think back and recall my boy in Year 1, walking out the front door with a huge cardboard model of Uncle Bulgaria from the Wombles, bigger than him, that he had drawn and cut out himself and was taking in proudly for a “show and share”. In subsequent years he won numerous school drawing competitions and even one for Playmobil magazine. His primary school years also saw him act the lead role in a school play, read out a beautiful poem he had written about winter at the Christmas concert, and perform a clarinet arrangement of Despacito so jazzy that it inspired a younger boy to take up the instrument. I am filled with pride as I reminisce about his cheeky dance on a chair at the heart-warming Year 6 farewell assembly; his hilarious imitation of various Anglo-Saxon accents; his animations; his mega cool basketball edits which have won him 60K followers on TikTok. The list of his creative endeavours is long.
What I find most puzzling and somewhat devastating, however, is that none of these light-hearted expressions of creativity have ever been included in my boy’s school grades but have forever been relegated to the realm of extracurricular activities. It is a miracle that he keeps finding creative outlets, despite his formal education. I have noticed that it gets harder and harder for him to find the time to break free from the exam factory. Exam after exam hangs over him like the sword of Damocles, slashing his natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.
Not a day passes without me thanking my lucky stars that my education had a course-based end of year grading system and I did not have to sit SATs, O-levels, GCSEs or A-levels. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think for a minute that the communist secondary education I received in Bulgaria fostered any creativity whatsoever. Creativity was never even on anyone’s radar, let alone part of the dominant rhetoric. Nevertheless, I never felt trapped on a conveyer belt of endless tests that beat my youth out of me. I just worked steadily throughout the year, as did my peers. And then we got our grades according to how hard we had worked before many went on to sit university entrance exams – for most, the first or second exam sets we’d taken.
It is painful to observe and read about how damaging to learning these endless exams are. The system seems designed to eliminate any intrinsic motivation for learning and substitute it with a mechanistic extrinsic motivation to get high marks in tests. Last year, school heads reported serious mental health challenges that GCSE students faced associated with their exams. The education system itself is in distress, with teachers leaving in record numbers and strikes signalling their profound desperation. Other reports reveal that students leave schools largely unprepared for the real world and stifled by fear of getting things wrong once at university. This is a direct result of the internalised viewpoint that the world operates as binary, as manifested in the everything-having-a-wrong-or-right-answer that the test-based ethos in schools instils.
Where is the space for inspired learning? “Tests don’t measure what you know. They measure how well you do tests. They certainly don’t measure your worth. But this doesn’t make it easier when you don’t succeed.“ That was Meredith Grey’s memorable summary of the flaw in the education system (on both sides of the Atlantic by the sounds of it) in one of her end-of-episode reflections in Grey’s Anatomy. This well-articulated truth, although shared in a fictional setting, made a deep impression on me the evening I heard it. And left me with a sense of helplessness to trigger change.
I look forward to the day when arts, humanities and PE have the same prestige in schools as maths and natural sciences. Girls are (rightly) encouraged to take up more STEM subjects, but boys are not encouraged to take up more arts ones, despite the substantive female skew in the take-up of arts- based subjects.
Wouldn’t it be great if exams became a sporadic part of school education; if stress became intermittent rather than a staple part of school life; and if creative endeavours were rewarded in formal assessments? How much more fulfilled, knowledgeable and prepared for the utterly unpredictable future would our children be then?
In the meantime, I will be ticking off the dozens of exams my son takes this year and praying that he finds some meaning in them, keeps his spirits up and maintains his creative endeavours as a side hustle until he steps off the treadmill called secondary school and lets his imagination fly.