Driven to distraction by revised version of knowledge

4th October 1996 at 01:00
During the summer there is some time to think of matters other than colleges. This summer I have solved the urban traffic problem. There will be no need to build more roads to accommodate the increasing number of cars, and environmental pollution will be considerably reduced.

Of course, the Government is on to the same thing with its introduction of a written examination as part of the driving test. But that won't go nearly far enough. It's very important that we all accept that knowledge and understanding can only be confidently attributed to those who achieve them within a stated period and without having to try more than twice for accreditation.

What will this mean? I suggest that we allow no more than two years from the first driving lesson to the passing of the test. Anyone who can't pass within that time will have to forget it - it won't count and they won't be allowed to throw away the L-plates.

What's more, they won't be allowed to take the test more than twice in the two-year period, even if they could manage to fit in a third try. This will mean fewer and better drivers taking to the road, and so there will be no need to continue to expand the road system.

Public transport will become more attractive; fare prices will fall after the new "road" money has been pumped instead into the public transport infrastructure to enable it to meet new demands. Public health and safety will improve. I can't think why no one's thought of it before.

Next I turned my mind to university over-crowding. What worries me is the ageing scholars spending years over their doctorates. How do we know that they have retained anything they learned early in the course? Do they have a synoptic examination at the end so that we can find out? What is the completion rate? Once we've weeded them out, let's look at modular MA courses. Then we can find places for the young people who have complied with the quality checks for acceptable qualifications.

Over the silly season, my thoughts turned to the professional qualifications which don't fall within the NVQ system. I know someone who rose high in his insurance company, after taking 13 years to pass the insurance examinations. Each subject forms a module which must be passed before the whole qualification is achieved. It's the same in other areas. When did you last ask your dentist whether he had to retake any part of his course and if so how many times? Do accountants have synoptic components to contend with? When is this to be put right?

Even more important, why don't the various bodies I've alluded to seem to think that there is anything wrong with retaking modules until you get them right? Is it because they believe that it's the level you're at, the standard you achieve, that matters and not the route you take to get there? Do they think that sometimes slow and steady can win the race, as in the old tale? Should the race be only to the swift?

At this point it was time for the annual squabble, the A-level results evaluation. This year it centred on the relative values of modular and terminal exam courses. Terminal exams aren't always that good a determinant of the standard of learning that has been reached, I mused. We all knew people who revised at the last minute, learned their stuff and emptied their heads of it the day afterwards to leave room for the next lot. Short-term memory is often allied with short-term retention.

Even worse is the ability to short-circuit the need to remember. I had an excellent English teacher, particularly good at preparing for examinations. So well was I prepared for the set-piece questions on Scott's Guy Mannering - the colourful characters of Dandie Dinmont and Meg Merrilees - that I never read the rest of the book. There's a lost heir at the beginning, and he's back by the end, is all I know. If I'd had course work I'd have had to read all of it, and think about it, too.

What is learned in one module is needed in the next part of the course. The motivation to pass each module first time is obvious, since the two-year constraint for A-levels means that you don't want to retake a module at the same time as studying for another which you are unlikely to perform well as if you haven't passed the first. Yet if you were simply unwell, or for some reason couldn't handle the examination although you understood the content, you can retake once and still finish the course on time.

The important thing is simply to decide what "advanced" level is. If it is a standard of understanding and the ability to use that understanding, then the important question is whether or not you have reached that level. How long it took you to get there is not important. As far as knowledge is concerned, we have reached the right standard if we know where to find the knowledge and can understand and use it when we've found it.

Anne Smith is the principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.

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