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Lack of imagination

August 22nd, 2003 · 1 Comment

Once again we are at that special time of year when the GCSE and A-Level results are announced for secondary school students here in the UK. There’s almost no point reading the newspapers since they always run the same stories. If the results for an exam improve, that’s because it’s getting easier. If they get worse, it’s because of lowered standards. There’ll be a few people complaining that they didn’t get into Oxbridge with ten A’s at A-Level, and of course there are the stories about the child wonders.

This year it seems that an eight year old boy gained an A* at Maths GCSE. Funny that, how it’s always a Maths or Computer Science exam that people seem to get first. (My take is that GCSE Maths and similar subjects are trivially easy for kids who have the right sorts of minds; there’s nothing inherently difficult about simultaneous equations or calculus, it’s just that they’re boring and most people can’t be bothered putting the effort in.)

There was also another story last week about a 13 year old boy who was expected to get a bunch of A-Levels and had been refused entry to university because he was too young. I find this crazy. There is absolutely no way that a 13 year old can get the best out of university; quite apart from not being able to drink, it’s just not legal for a 13 year old to live on their own. So say you go with your parents; well, that kind of kills off any possibility of living a normal independent university life.

But that’s not the main problem I have with kids doing exams so early and wanting to go to university. My problem is that there are far more interesting and useful things to do than take exams at such an early age. This doesn’t mean that they should spend all their time playing football and mucking about; rather, it means that if they are interested in, say, computers or science, they could try their hand at programming a game or devising experiments. Just not exams!

When I was at San Diego, there was a 16 year old schoolboy in the lab who had been there for a year designing and running his own psychological experiments. He was very sharp and a very nice guy, and I was happy to see that instead of taking a load of pointless exams (who needs ten A-Levels?) he was doing something interesting and productive. Plus, I’m willing to bet that university admissions officers will be more impressed with the three papers he’ll have published than a couple of high exams marks.

I agree that there is a point to doing exams, but I feel that it’s an unconscionable waste of time pushing kids to do a bunch of exams five years ahead of normal. There are so many better things to do.

Tags: cambridge · edu · oxford · politics · science

1 response so far ↓

  • seby // Sep 8, 2003 at 5:12 pm

    You are complaining about Britain? It’s much worse in America – testing is now mandatory and often what happens is that the schools use their budget to pay for testing and grading, but fire teachers so the kids dont get taught anything. And btw, that 16 year-old is pretty lucky to get to design his own experiments. Most schools probably wouldn’t know what to do with a gifted student, other than tell him to shut up and take the tests just like every other student.

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