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What keeps me awake: our obsession with grades is eating away at education

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A round of applause ripples through the class as a group of students sit back in their seats. I step up and congratulate their performance: “So let’s talk about what we’ve just seen…” Off I go encouraging discussion, analysis, and self-awareness. But before I can get carried away with how smoothly the lesson is going, I’m brought back down to earth with a bump.

“What grade is it?” a student asks.

I explain that we’re not talking about grades at present, but rather creating an atmosphere of trust and safety where we can discuss work and whether or not the aims were communicated to the audience.

“But is it enough to get an A*?” another student asks. “If I got a top mark for this, what’s the lowest mark I could get in the written exam to still get the grade I need?”

Things are getting out of control.

Many teachers reading this will scoff that this appears to be my biggest teaching concern, but what worries me is that this is symptomatic of a deadlier disease that seems to be slowly consuming teaching. The obsession with grades and results; a blinkered, tunnelled vision that is eating away at education.

What happened to learning for the enjoyment of learning? Am I naive to think this can ever happen? The adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish feels so apt at the moment, because as a country we no longer seem concerned with whether a child is learning, only whether they are getting sufficient grades. Generations of children are leaving school with a perception of education as merely something that will take them on to the next level. Schools’ main concern is what grades students achieve rather than what they learn. Aren’t we rather missing the point?

This year and next will bring new specifications across all exam boards and once again teachers must jump through the usual hoops to understand entirely new syllabuses, our proof of whether we master them will be when all the results come in after the exams. And the same old question resounds in my ears.

Are we helping them pass their exams? Certainly.

Are we teaching them? Hmm.   

Rob Messik is director of theatre and drama at King Alfred School in London

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