Currently, the foundation of the UK education system, across all levels, is competition. Students are ranked against one another and compete for grades. In the end, it all boils down to the day when you receive that sheet of paper which tells you whether all the slogging was worth it. Inevitably, some will be elated and others will be disappointed; not everyone can achieve the top grades. The objective of giving education is reduced to churning out numbers to move students on to the next stage. Everything comes down to assessments, meaning all forms of achievement are made quantifiable. Often, this means that what students are taught is not applicable to contexts beyond examinations. The challenge is simply to regurgitate under exam conditions.

Reform Fails to Perform

The reformed GCSEs and A Levels have made examinations even more tough, competitive and stressful. According to the OECD, since 2015 (the year the reforms came into effect), the life satisfaction of the UK’s 15-year-olds has declined the most out of any country. The reforms have made the curriculum narrower and more compartmentalised, to the point that it dissuades deep understanding and independent thinking. Moreover, 73 per cent of teachers believe student mental health has worsened among students since the introduction of the reformed GCSEs.

This focus on classification and competition reflects the reality of capitalism and the values of the European Age of Enlightenment, such as quantification, equality of opportunity and empiricism. The root problem with such a system is that it assumes there is a level playing field and ignores the reality of diversity. Some kids are naturally ‘book smart,’ and are easily able to recall facts and information, while others are not. Some kids benefit from a nurturing home environment and others do not. Some schools are better than others. The quality of teachers varies greatly. Some students work well under timed conditions and others do not. All of this means that the system is too arbitrary and ultimately unfair.

Useless Knowledge

The argument for competition in education is that it drives excellence and prepares young people for the harsh reality of the working world. Having achieved strong GCSE and A-Level results and then going on to Cambridge University, I am an example of someone who has thrived in competitive academic environments. Yet having come out the other side, I am disillusioned with the system. I have a string of excellent results and I am full of useless knowledge. It also goes to show how the system preserves privilege; I was able to perform well academically because I was fortunate to go to a good school and blessed with supportive, encouraging parents.

In 1980, only 15 per cent of students went on to study at university; now, over half go on to higher education. Moreover, 60 per cent of those from independent schools attend a Russell Group university, and just under a quarter of those come from comprehensives and sixth-form colleges.

As more and more students excel academically, the justification for a competition-based education system weakens. Now, achieving A grades at A-Level and getting a degree from a good university hardly sets you apart from others.

Ticking All the Right Boxes

The obsession with numerical assessment, which characterises the UK education system, also stifles independent thinking — particularly for arts and humanities subjects. Students end up learning fixed formulaic methods for answering essay questions because they see it as the only way to achieve high marks. This means they can never really tap into the meaningful depths of literature and history because they are so preoccupied with the need to produce an answer under timed conditions which ticks all the right boxes.

Advocates of examination-based learning would argue that there is no other way to incentivise and challenge students to do better and work harder. However, this tends to have a negative impact on student wellbeing. Around 15 per cent of GCSE students fall under the category of being ‘highly test anxious.’ Two-thirds of children rank homework and exams as their greatest cause of stress.

The argument for tough, memory-based exams is also based on an assumption that the goal of education is for students to perform well in assessments. But what if the purpose of education was reformulated? What if the objective of education was to produce secure, empathetic, resilient and self-aware individuals? What if education actually supported students’ mental health, rather than making it worse?

I feel that an education which taught me how to relate to others and how to be mindful would have better prepared me for the world. We have come a long way since the Age of Enlightenment, and it is high time for a new set of values.

This means moving away from the endless emphasis on quantifiable testing, and towards a system with more opportunities for creativity and practical work. This also means celebrating diversity and enabling students to specialise and learn in an individualised way which suits their particular needs and skillset. Finally, it means allowing all pupils to flourish, rather than punitively categorising students according to how they perform in stressful, time-pressured exams.

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