There's a joke: someone is asked why he keeps hitting his head against a wall, only to answer that it feels good when he stops. That came to mind when looking at the results of a survey of student views on teaching, which we conducted across the Girls’ Day School Trust. At least it did when we looked at the responses of students of a particular age group.
What stands out is the distorting effect of the battery of GCSE exams facing students at age 16.
Junior-school pupils frequently refer to teachers caring, helping, supporting and listening. In key stage 3, these priorities remain, but they tend to become more specific – less about teachers’ personal qualities, and more about the specific ways in which they interact with the student and the class. Students appreciate those who explain clearly, inspire you to do your best, offer great feedback or give reasons for telling people off.
But in Years 10 and 11, answers take an instrumentalist turn, reflecting the impending obstacle of GCSE exams. Students give higher marks for teaching that is closely based to the syllabus, providing good notes and resources.
Once over the GCSE hurdle, responses among sixth formers become more expansive. They really rate teachers who know the subject well, have genuine passion, enjoy sharing their subject and inspire students.
It seems that the only justification for banging our heads against the GCSE brick wall is the relief that comes when we stop.
The changing responses over the educational phases are generally consonant with what we might expect as children grow up. The stand-out dissonance is in key stage 4, where the battery of external exams amounts to a constraint and a distraction that forces students into a "learned helplessness", leading, at best, to a loss of self-direction and, at worst, to unacceptable levels of anxiety.
The battery of public exams no longer represents the end point of compulsory education, yet it has not been dismantled, unlike the constraining medieval walls of a rapidly expanding town. As long as GCSE survives in its current form, it serves to distort curriculum, teaching and learning.
The survey of trends in language learning conducted by the British Council and the Education Development Trust bears this out. The survey concludes that “the exam system is seen as one of the principal barriers to the development of language teaching”.
Attempts to increase numbers doing MFL GCSE have failed to stem the tide away from MFL post-16. MFL is perceived as harder and less attractive than other exam subjects. Others would point to the irrelevance to many young people of curriculum content dominated by "pets and pencil cases".
In MFL, as in other curriculum areas, students are made to see specific subjects, and learning in general, through the distorting prism of public exams – and while the grades might be OK, the damage will have been done.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1