Whatever happened to the learning thrill?

I met a fellow-sufferer yesterday, someone else whose child was 17. She was spitting mad. She had just realised her daughter had just had 28 weeks to cover half an A-level course, decide if she could master calculus and advanced chemistry, bash out some geography coursework and analyse historical documents."This used to take two years," she wailed. "I only really understood A-level chemistry in the upper sixth!" She's a bio-chemist.

AS-levels, what are they good for? Let's face it: absolutely nothing. We have the most tested school population in the world, yet, as any car owner knows, constant testing does not guarantee better performance. At some point you have to actually open the bonnet, do some work, go for a spin, see how well it is doing and go back for corrections. It's called tuning when it is cars; feedback, when it is people. Three years on the trot of public examinations just does not allow for enough feedback getting into pupils' brains.

Am I paranoid or does the Government - or civil servants in the Department for Education and Skills - really, really hate young people? Because three years of exams does have a powerful effect on teenagers, especially males. It makes them dislike education, seen as a series of stressful tests. It rouses their natural balkiness and defiance. It reinforces a perception that education is all about gaining qualifications and not about gaining something for inside of yourself, something that, yes, will make you a desirable employee and member of society but also will give you access to ways of thinking about and understanding the world.

Last year, when AS-levels were introduced, traditional personality-developing extra-curricular activities like the school play, organising school sports for younger ones, music concerts and the like, got ditched in many schools. Everyone felt that this left school life featureless, so this year such activities have been reinstated, but now with the added stress of "better do this too, they are looking for it on your form". Yes, it is another kind of test.

Back to the fallacy. More exams don't make you work harder. They make you work more selectively, to the test. Hence recent research by King's College that shows Year 7 pupils failing to remember so-called level 5 material that they had effectively coughed up in Year 6 national tests. They had learnt for the test - and they forgot once the test was done. Is this really what we want? Our future engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers, social workers need to be enthused, not resentful. They need to develop intellectually, to stretch their heads around stuff that really is more difficult than GCSE.

My own grumpy teenager was not, I have discovered, at all untypical when he handed me back the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins with the words: "I really like these but I don't want any stuff in my head that's not in the exam."

We all know he's being disingenuous because there's a load of images from music videos and The Simpsons in those grey cells, but whatever happened to "reading around the subject"? Humanities teachers in some schools have been counselling against too much extra reading, saying, "they are not really looking for that at this stage". What's going on?

Maybe it was all too touchy-feely when primary teachers used to ditch punctuation lessons in favour of responding to thunder storms and English teachers abandoned set texts because they had read a good poem and wanted to share it, but actually, I don't think so. Some teachers were, no doubt, too woolly. But now a lot of teachers have become too prescriptive. Too scared for their pupils, but also scared of slipping down any available league table. It's a realistic fear, since career prospects depend on being allied to successful schools.

Sixth-form teaching used to be the plum for teachers who really liked their subjects. Now it offers little enjoyment apart from the satisfaction of "covering the ground".

With the looming prospect of important tests, the thrill of learning is marginalised. As one head of English said: "I'm really sorry for the kids. They don't have time even to find out if they like anything before they have to do another exam."

Like I said, someone seems to really hate teenagers - and teachers. As my friend put it: "Can't they just wait till they've grown up a bit before they test them again?"

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