On Tuesday 3 May, thousands of parents, organised by the Let Kids be Kids campaign, kept their seven year old children from school to protest at the government-imposed SATS tests.
Preparation for those tests, they say, squeezes out creative learning and makes children anxious. “What if I fail?” A box-ticking, hurdle-jumping structure to education is common to capitalist education systems. England’s obsession with testing, and testing, and testing again is extreme. It indoctrinates young children into thinking “I’m a level 3” or “my brother is a level 4”. Even conservatives are being forced to recognise some of the harm. The Institute of Directors, in a report on 18 April, said that schools must be shifted from being “‘exam factories’ that primarily test students’ ability to recall facts and apply standardised methods, two things computers do much better than humans”. John Cridland, director of the bosses’ confederation CBI, last year called for GCSEs to be abolished. “The only purpose they serve now is to allow measurement of schools through league tables”.
Exams have their uses. For plumbing or brain surgery, you want someone whose skills have been verified by a commonly-recognised procedure. But school exams have nothing to do with that. Their purpose is not to certify people as competent. It is to brand most students as failures and debar them from further education (and secondarily, via school league tables and their knock-on effects within schools, to brand teachers as failures). Branding people as failures helps make them compliant, and so serves capitalism. But the exam obsession of English schools is so extreme that even some capitalists have come to want more actual education and less blinkered exam-cramming. An extra twist is added by England’s system of competing exam boards, some straight profit-grabbers, others “non-profits” which pay top bosses huge salaries. To do well in market competition, the exam boards make their exams highly routinised and cheap to mark. The results are absurd.
Take for example maths and further maths A levels, at the opposite end of the school schedule from the Year 2 studies tested by SATS. For centuries, mathematical schooling consisted of teaching arithmetic calculations to relatively many and Euclid’s geometry to some. There was much wrong with it, but it had some correspondence to maths in real life, to everyday figuring and to the understanding of how new truths could be won. Through Euclid students learned, well or poorly, about the rigorous logic of mathematical proof. Now there is still mental arithmetic in primary and early secondary schooling, but it gets squeezed out as GCSE approaches. The average good A level further maths student has very little idea how to do the “street-fighting maths” of rough-and-ready calculations, and will learn no more of that through the A level syllabus. Proof has disappeared from the school syllabus. The reason now given by schools for believing mathematical formulas is the teacher’s say-so, not proof. Almost all A level maths and further maths is mechanical procedures — some important, and necessary to learn, and others of only special interest (for purposes about which the textbook-writers seem to know little). To do well in A level maths and further maths is to achieve 90% accuracy in those procedures.
You could in principle do it while knowing nothing about the living streams of maths in real life — rough-and-ready calculation and conjecture, imaginative transposition of patterns from one context to another, and rigorous proof. It is maths without the maths. Universities with higher-flying maths departments disdain the A levels, and set their own extra exams for entrants, including real maths. Many state schools have little capacity to teach students for those exams. University science and engineering department put effort into websites encouraging school students to attempt problems beyond the A level routine. Employers tell researchers that students arrive from school unable to deal with “simple maths in complex settings”. Schools should teach critical, creative, and informed thinking. The exam obsession cuts directly against that.