The safe road to stagnation

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
I have come to the conclusion that the second half of August should be erased from the calendar and then sneaked quietly back in during deepest February. Anyone with sense and not awaiting key exam results departs Britain for the peaceful shores of, well, anywhere really.

The quality of debate about exam results slumps lower each year and, since there is no other education news, the coverage is as long and drawn out as the start of the football season.

The first half of August produces intense media speculation and rumour. The season then kicks off in earnest on the third Thursday with the Utterly Nutterly Premier League - A-level results. Next come the junior leagues (Sats scores) and finally, on the fourth Thursday, the Chumps Championship League starts up (GCSE results).

The level of argument is pitched between the verbal reasoning quotient of a somewhat dim gnat and the analytical dexterity of the average carrot. The nearest equivalent is Chicken Licken, who believed the sky had fallen on his head when hit by an acorn. Eventually, and quite rightly, the mutt was eaten by Foxy Loxy.

More than 90 per cent pass A-level, with a large number of their peers having been filtered out after doing badly in their AS-level course. So the exam must be too easy, quacks Ducky Lucky.

More than 80 per cent reach level 4 in the Sats (now always referred to as either the "expected" or "minimum" level, no longer "average"). Squawk squawk, children are stupid, teachers are useless, only 80 per cent, disgraceful, croaks Goosey Loosey. All children should be above average, wails Turkey Lurkey.

The sad truth is that there is no magic number, no particular percentage pass rate that will ever avoid this silly frenzy. The lower the pass rate, the stupider children must be. The higher it goes, the easier the exam must have been.

Try 30 per cent passes - or 50, 70, 90 - 100 per cent even. Sorry, they would all be regarded as abject failure, for one reason or another. There is simply no examination equivalent of pi, no figure which would have that constant and satisfying circular neatness.

The deeper psychological reasons for this lie in a timeless desire to believe that (a) we ourselves were really smart at school, and (b) other people's children, though not usually our own, are dim and feckless idlers.

Abandon hope.

The next generation is clueless, compared with us, and we'll all be murdered in our beds.

Hence the winning appeal, in the eyes of politicians, in telling voters they will defend, or reintroduce, traditional methods. Tomlinson Report? Ooooh, far too risky, stick to good old A-levels. Phew, what a relief.

New methods of teaching? Dear oh dear. Could be a disaster.

Keep copying off the blackboard, even though it bored us legless.

The serious side to all this annual mayhem is that it provokes panic and inhibits change. Solution number one is to return to the past. Bring back O-levels, reintroduce caning, uniforms, a house system... er, slates and chalk, school cabbage, teachers in gowns. Gad sir, it left me in fine fettle, twitch twitch.

Yet many of the dim buggers can't switch on a computer, let alone use it, and don't even know what "average" means. In the good old days, after a thousand French lessons to O-level, most of the cleverest children in the land were unable to string a sentence together beyond Calais. Where is the pen of my aunt? More to the point, where is the brain of my elders?

There is a far bigger blight on interesting and exciting developments in education than there is in medicine, or architecture even. Powerful retro rockets propelling us back to the past make teachers feel guilty if they innovate, or challenge the status quo.

Fear of the annual August results circus can drive imagination into a deep trench. Older generations would remember what is involved in creative teaching and the more robust would have a go. The rest would believe schools were failing. Only the past can save us.

Imagine a world where all professionals are too scared to experiment or seek to improve what they do, and politicians, egged on by the mass media, can command complete conformity to the past.

Channel tunnel? Go by coracle. Balanced diet? Rickets and scurvy will toughen you up. Want to be a world-class footballer? Run round and round the dirt track every day, then have fish and chips and a few pints before the big game. Moving house? There's a nice cave on the market.

Need a triple bypass? Stick a leech on your bum instead, tried and tested.

Want to discuss whether examination standards are falling or falling one mad fortnight in August? Ring Chicken Licken.

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