Our Orwellian school system

22 Apr 2016


Following a story this week that a Key Stage 1 SAT spelling test had been accidentally printed as a sample test paper, focus was placed on the Department for Education’s incompetence. Russell Hobby, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers, voiced his concerns to Education Minister Nick Gibb, saying that the error “undermines confidence in the administration of primary tests.” The Department for Education has since cancelled this year’s new spelling and grammar assessment, to the incredulity of seven to eleven year olds across the country, who once again have been outsmarted by the bureaucratic Orwellian machine which is our education system.


But with the conclusion of this event resulting in a ‘victory’ for Whitehall in a Dickensian show of power over primary school children, the real question is why it is such a bad thing that children should pass their exams through a memorised knowledge of the subject material. Instead, they are to be dragged through years of gruelling tests designed purely to separate out successes from failures, humouring our broken education system.


Those of us naive enough to suggest that our education system should be designed to create a maximum number of successes – that is, a world where 100% pass rates would be a good thing – might wonder where the harm is in letting children have the answers before their exams. That, after all, is the nature of study and revision; our examination processes largely revolve around remembering certain facts and transferring them onto paper anyway. Whether it is the dates of battles in history, or the themes of Shakespeare, or the types of igneous rocks, methods of assessment test memory, not knowledge. For those of you screaming out that applicable skills, such as being able to identify themes in a piece of text, are also tested, let’s be clear; memorising a particular exam technique such as feminist critique is no different than memorising trigonometry, or algebra, or subtraction.


In the case of spelling in particular, it is clear that any test must be based upon memory and vocabulary strength, and that the successful outcome of a spelling education is a person who is able to spell adequately in order to write competently. A spelling test should contain a variety of simple and complex words to test the vocabularies of children; but it is surely perverse to test their skill in spelling with words that they don’t know, merely to distinguish between children who are able to make educated guesses with those who aren’t.


What are our examinations supposed to be testing anyway? The idea of a universal Intelligence Quotient (IQ) has already been dismissed as a scientific myth, so the idea that children should differentiated through unpredictability is archaic and simply unfounded. That is, unless our education system is not designed to nurture and grade practically useful skills, but to create a hierarchical separation of children for some perverse, capitalistic ideal. People should to be able to write a cheque, open a bank account, write a letter and speak clearly voicing their opinions and concerns. They need to be able to participate in local politics. Yet so much of our education involves learning medieval history, practicing archaic manual forms of mathematics, and studying the poetry of Tennyson, that our children lack basic life skills when they emerge from school. The current system, based on some ill-gotten idea that competition and perpetual assessment should underpin education, has also been accused of discriminating against girls, who prefer co-operation to ‘beating’ their classmates when it comes to exams and achievements.


What is particularly frightening both from a social and political point of view is that neither the government, nor senior figures such as Mr Hobby, have any idea what our education system is supposed to do. Clearly, in their eyes, it is undesirable that an entire year of children are able to spell. League tables, applications, feeder schools, entry requirements and postcode lotteries; the reality of our education system is that it has become so tied up in the competitive spirit, sowed by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, that it has lost its principle tenet – that our children should benefit from an education to the maximum degree possible, to furnish themselves, our economy, and our collective future.


It is time for our education system to have a radical overhaul. Because, for the time being, Britain’s school system continues to be a stressful and damaging environment for children – an environment of competition and hierarchy designed to arbitrarily separate failures and successes.



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