Does everyone in school have Stockholm syndrome?

If cancelling GCSEs and A levels really would do pupils harm, then perhaps we've all fallen for the system holding us captive, says Yvonne Williams
11th November 2020, 1:01pm


Does everyone in school have Stockholm syndrome?
Prisoner, Holding On To Cell Bars

Even by the standards of 2020, a year in which we have become used to doom-ridden narratives, Amanda Spielman's remarks to the Commons Education Select Committee about "doing real harm" by cancelling the summer 2021 exams seem excessively ominous. 

Ofsted's chief inspector is quoted as saying: "We also know that many, many schools strongly believe that, with so much of the structure and motivation for young people having been designed around exam specifications, to say at this point that we won't do that [run exams] makes schools feel that a large proportion of pupils simply wouldn't return to schools for the rest of the academic year. 

"So if you pull out something around which the system is organised without something else in its place, you could end up inadvertently doing real harm." 

If the assumptions underlying this view are really true of most schools, then I have to ask: have we as teachers suffered so long from Stockholm syndrome that we now pass it on unthinkingly to our students? Have we fallen in love with the system that holds us captive?

Coronavirus: The risk of cancelling exams

Teachers and schools have lived far too long with the accountability framework, without publicly questioning it. We may even have bought into it. We accept impossible floor targets. We see the pressure students are placed under when chasing predicted grades as an inevitable side-effect, to be "managed out" pastorally. 

Too much teaching has been reduced to a series of lessons addressing assessment objectives in turn, building in more and more practice, and squeezing the joy out of learning. 

Have our efforts to promote performance resulted in us falling in love with our captors, finding security in the endless repetitious rationale of "You have to learn this because it's in the exam"? Worse still, has this led to us passing on to our students a kind of Stockholm syndrome where they too, knowing no better, see grades as learning, rather than as a crude form of calibration? 

Drilling in exam techniques is a poor substitute for broader, critical and creative thinking, and the soft team-building skills that employers say they really want. 

Of course, there are students who are by nature competitive exam candidates, and who will enjoy being tested in any form. And, in the summer of 2020, the last-minute revisers, or those who felt unfairly judged, may well wish that they'd had the chance to go through the particular rite of passage of GCSE and A-level exams. 

But what about the fate of the forgotten third, whom the system tests each year, only to reject? They are rejected purely to maintain standards in qualifications that allow the other two-thirds to pass and enter better courses and jobs. 

GCSE and A levels: Devaluing the process of education?

In concentrating on Amanda Spielman's warning about "harm" resulting from the absence of exams, it's all too easy to underplay the misery caused by exam season. For how many years have the various child-focused helplines reported increasing distress of young people facing examinations that are so daunting they have to reach out for medical and emotional support? 

One view is that all exams do is help you to do more exams. It's certainly true that by placing such a high premium on grades we are devaluing the process of education, its broader aims and skills. 

So perhaps we should think the unthinkable. Was the lesson of the previous lockdown that we need exams to ensure that all students attend in order to pass a series of examinations? Or is the real point that we have gone on too long accepting a system in which assessment has led learning by the nose? 

Perhaps, at last, we have reached the point where we should relegate assessment to its rightful place: at the end of education. Education does not exist just so that regulatory bodies and commercial education industries can have a purpose. 

Perhaps, finally, we could have assessment that would support learning, rather than skew it to suit the model of assessment dictated by the government of the day. And then students might just be encouraged by the intrinsic worth of their education to stay on.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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