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A fragile start to life

Exams come earlier and earlier, yet independence comes later and later. It's no wonder young people are confused, says Stuart Waiton

was surprised and delighted when I heard that East Renfrewshire was planning to fast-track 14-year-olds through their Intermediate exams because the early years of high school were seen to be too easy. Inspectors have indicated that too little is expected of this age group within schools, and so East Renfrewshire has decided to raise the stakes by having the exam a year earlier. At a time when young people are increasingly understood to be fragile and unable to cope with pressure, this seemed to be a positive step.

Over the past decade or so, the idea has grown that children being put under pressure is a potentially harmful thing. Rarely expressed in the overt form of saying that exams amount to "a form of child abuse", as it was argued at one teachers' conference, this idea has nevertheless taken root.

Competitive sports, for example, have become more problematic partly because creating winners and losers is seen as harmful to those who are "excluded". But even for the winners, achievement in sport is today seen as dangerous.

As a child, I can remember how 14-year-old gymnast Nadia Comaneci of Romania shook the sporting world by achieving the first ever perfect score of 10. Back in 1976, Comaneci's achievement was celebrated across the world, in contrast to today's more uncomfortable approach to child prodigies.

In women's tennis, for example, feature articles about ever younger players are as likely to focus on "pushy parents", and a "lost childhood", as they are to highlight the achievements of these young people. Like the fall from grace of competitive sports in many schools, the idea of pushing great young tennis players to the limit of their ability simply does not fit with today's more anxious therapeutic culture.

Children leaving primary school are expected to be chaperoned into high school and high school leavers can now be seen being escorted around university grounds. It appears that the transitions facing young people increasingly come with an adult to hold their hand in case the stress becomes too much. In this climate, the tendency is to attempt to alleviate educational pressure on young people rather than to increase it.

In both England and Scotland over the past few years, there have been rumblings about the brightest pupils being bored by the limited curriculum in the first few years of secondary school. Given this, the East Renfrewshire move seemed to be a possible solution. However, after talking to a number of teachers about the new development, the reasons for this move look more problematic than they at first appeared.

"Death by a thousand exams" is how one teacher described this East Renfrewshire change to me. Rather than using a wide array of educational methods, extra-curricular activities, classroom experiments and so on to develop the widest possible knowledge of children, the danger is that ever more exams have become a technical, paper exercise, the only guide to a pupil's progress at a time when the purpose of education has become less clear and more instrumental.

Worse still, one of the other reasons given for the earlier exams was that this would mean pupils would have another year to study the more difficult Higher exams, which would mean more young people passing.

The motivation for this appears to have been driven more by the bureaucratic desire to improve league table positions, through increasing the pass rate of the more prestigious Higher grade qualification, than with a concern for better education.

Also, by replacing the "gold standard" of the one-year Higher with an easier two-year equivalent, East Renfrewshire is open to the charge, as one teacher said to me, of attempting to "cheat the exam system". This change simply transfers the "limited expectations" of the bored 14-year-olds on to the 16-year-olds.

Rather than reflecting an enlightened belief in education and the potential of young people, this development looks more like a bureaucratic ploy to achieve quotas, while still protecting the "fragile" youth of today.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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