What is the purpose of education?

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From my short experience in two secondary state schools on teaching practice, followed by three years in a 4-16 independent school, it is clear that extra anxiety is placed on pupils by pushing them to complete exams / tests. I can see why many deem them as unnecessary. End of year exams are built up to be a target to work towards, especially in the weeks preceding the dreaded ‘exam week’ held in my last school and that which I attended as a pupil. From my experience, lessons suddenly revolve around practice papers, teaching children to answer similar questions to those in the paper they are about to sit. This seems to ensure that teachers appear effective, with their pupils achieving good results. As a Year 9 Form Tutor in my last school, it was during the week preceding the exams that the volume of contact from parents increased and also an air of uncertainty and nervousness surrounding the pupils.

It is of no surprise that many people are questioning – Is this really what we want from our education system? Should we not be teaching to prepare pupils for their future rather than to pass tests? The thought brings me back to my experience learning to drive. At the age of 17 I remember vividly running through various manoeuvres over and over again to ensure that I could complete them to the accepted standard required by the DVLA. I am not convinced I was being taught to be a safe and effective driver.

I do believe that tests / exams have a place. They are a useful gauge of pupils’ levels of understanding and also a functional tool to measure progress, just as I asked clients to do at the beginning and end of a fitness programme when working as a personal trainer. I also believe that GCSEs and A Levels are useful markers to demonstrate skill areas and ability levels. They also provide a ‘reason’ for some to study hard (‘I need these grades to get in to college’) and can be used to suggest whether a child’s next step in their lives is suitable for them, for example, will they cope with the course they want to go on to? On the flip side, I feel that GCSEs only reflect the type of person you are aged 16. I am not convinced that they are treated with tremendous importance later in life by prospective employers. Following GCSEs I have to say I agree with selecting a narrower line of study in the courses that many colleges offer or to complete A Levels. By being given a finer range of subjects, it is possible to focus on areas that interest you most. Many courses also offer a qualification to go into a particular area of employment.

Although not a formal exam or test, I feel it is important to note the prominence of having to prove progress within lessons and throughout the school year. It is the constant need to evidence progress that I feel has a negative effect on teaching. Whilst completing a Masters research project I remember clearly one teacher visibly displaying their frustrations during an interview. They referred to how their lessons had to keep stopping / slowing down in order to conduct a mini plenary, demonstrating the pupils’ understanding and progress towards the learning objective, rather than continuing the learning process. Although important to know where the pupils learning is at, I feel that teachers should be able to make the judgement themselves based on what they are observing in the classroom. There is a need to document progress, though should this be the main focus of our schooling as it can sometimes feel?

I have been delighted in my newest teaching post to see the buzz of excitement around the school. I could not believe how pleased the pupils were to be back during the first week of the school year. There is a relaxed feel amongst most pupils. I thoroughly enjoy being allowed to teach with a creative approach, where pupils are not sitting at desks all day, documenting their learning and completing endless assessed work and tests. Pupils can express their feelings through the work they produce and even given freedom in the way they answer a task. I strongly feel that pupils do learn so much more within a creative approach. They will remember being out and about around the classroom or even the school grounds during their lessons, rather than being sat at a desk for up to an hour at a time. There is of course a time and a place for focussing on written work, though the constant need to produce work that is then subject to a thorough assessment and grading I feel is not always necessary. Pupils are very quick to compare their ability with others, which can cause further anxieties and self esteem issues. In my last school, pupils in my Maths class had to sit an end of year exam. The questions they answered best were in fact the topics that were studied with a more creative approach, for example: naming straight line graphs, using a giant graph on the playground and pupils using themselves to plot points. The children loved this lesson and it clearly stuck with them, as did the lesson on area and perimeter in which we measured the hockey goals and sand pit on the playing fields. Although just one example, I do believe that an enjoyable school life, with a creative approach to teaching and learning can coexist with a rigorous academic programme.

Will Bray

Group 2 Class Teacher & Head of Boys’ Games, Dunhurst

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.


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