Stuck on the treadmill

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Whole households are being NABbed to death in the academic equivalent of water torture, says Brian Boyd

THE only thing worse than being a parent of an S5 pupil right now is being an S5 pupil. If you are doing five subjects heading for Higher, the pressure is relentless. Not only are some of the external exams almost impossible in terms of time constraints and structure, but you also have the academic equivalent of water torture, NABs - National Assessment Bank items.

Our entirely family life revolves round NABs. Since our son, Chris, is doing five Highers, his school life consists of preparing for a NAB, doing a dry run of a NAB, doing a NAB or getting the results back from a NAB. And so its goes on, a never-ending treadmill of tests and examination.

His school, like many others, is under pressure to improve results and to maximise the time spent on learning and teaching. It has timetabled every Higher subject for six periods each; and there are 30 periods in the week.

You don't have to be an arithmetical whiz to work out that the whole week is given over to preparation for the forthcoming exams. There are inserts of social education, religious education and physical education from time to time, but the day-to-day pressure is relentless.

Undoubtedly, teachers are happier to have six periods than five, and they are working extremely hard to get through the syllabus and prepare for all eventualities, but it is hardly a balanced education. The school is in no way to blame. The system itself has become skewed in the face of the pressure exerted by successive governments.

Success in examinations is still seen as the principal way of measuring the effectiveness of a school. Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, has recently signalled an end to the practice of targets being set nationally for every school in the land, in favour of local targets negotiated with individual schools. But for this year's students, and maybe even a few more cohorts to come, it is too late.

There are rays of hope. Glasgow University's faculty of medicine has indicated its intention to include assessment of "emotional intelligence" as a key criterion for selection. This could have tremendous implications for what happens in schools given that, historically, the university tail has wagged the dog. Now one of the most prestigious faculties in the country is suggesting that Highers cannot measure all of the qualities required to be a successful doctor (for doctor, read "human being").

Qualities such as empathy, resilience, stickability, interpersonal skills and ability to work with others may become just as important as knowledge and understanding. What are sometimes referred to as core skills may not be treated as an afterthought, but feature as key elements of the curriculum.

The only danger is that someone will devise an examination to test emotional intelligence, produce a syllabus, and it may even become a sixth Higher.

However, reducing subject time to five periods and adding in an extra subject called emotional intelligence won't do either. We need to look at the whole of the child's experience of education, from pre-five to post-school, and look at how they can become a successful learner. As HMI put it, we should be "educating the whole child". The goal has to change from examination success only to include skills for lifelong learning.

The final problem may well be the nature of the examinations themselves. We have long since accepted as inevitable the fact that we herd whole year groups into a hall, sit them so that they cannot touch or communicate with another human being and ask them to write frantically for upwards of two hours at a time, in silence, as the only way of assessing their knowledge, understanding and skills.

t appears that we have the worst of all possible worlds. External examinations which have been pared down to be intensive tests of a much narrower range of skills in some subjects (such as English) and a series of "high stakes" internal assessments - NABs - which disrupt the flow of the learning and teaching.

Now, I can already hear the spokesperson for the Scottish Qualifications Authority issuing a forceful rebuttal, asserting that it is not their officials who force teachers to teach towards the exam, or give dry runs of NABs, or advise pupils to learn whole essays by heart. I can almost hear the tone of moral indignation and outrage.

But the fact remains that these examinations are distorting not only the curriculum and the family life of countless 16 and 17-year-olds but also the way young people learn. They know that the exams don't test all their knowledge, skills, understanding. Examination results do not necessarily predict their likelihood of being successful in later life. They know that there is more to being a successful learner than merely committing facts to memory and regurgitating them in an exam room.

The so-called knowledge economy is as much about knowing where to find the right knowledge and how to apply it in new situations as it is about storing knowledge in your head. In a fast changing world, the shelf life of most knowledge is diminishing all the time.

But young people also know that the stakes are being raised for entry to universities. With mounting debt, top-up fees and the probability of a two-tier system of higher education, who'd be a fifth-year pupil in Scotland today? Who'd be their parents?

Brian Boyd is reader in education at Strathclyde University.

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