Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Teenagers and Exams

At the moment, my 15 year old daughter Ella is taking some of her GCSE exams.  Today it's Biology and Geography SDME.  My eldest daughter Megan also has five of her final year exams at university taking place.  The whole concept of exams and education has been very much at the forefront of my mind.

When I was at school I was one of those people who loved exams.  I was not very engaged in class.  I didn't enjoy participating in lessons and preferred the challenge of being on my own with an exam paper.  No distractions, no having to listen to a teacher and no being held back by the less able students.  It was quite a selfish way to conduct myself.  I took very little part in classroom activities but totally rocked the exams.  I had strings of stress-free A's.

The format of O'Levels were very different to GCSE's.  We had a multi-choice paper, a short answer question paper and an essay paper.  It was very straightforward and tested your knowledge of the whole subject.  How times have changed!  GCSE papers seem very strange to me, filled with odd scenarios that require you to think outside of the box and decipher the question before applying any factual knowledge.  There is an emphasis on evidence and proof rather than just the facts.  It tests something very different and I'm not sure I get it!

Instead of highlighters and revision notes, which were my tools of choice, kids these days use Moodle, an online resource.  The temptation to flit between social media and revision is too great, and I defy any teen to be 100% committed to the uninspiring pages of exam questions when an MSN conversation beckons just a click away!  Procrastination is just too easy!

All that aside, I have found my attitude to the education system changing dramatically.  Ella is not as happy with exams as I was.  They cause her stress and make her feel sick.  She is an incredibly clever girl and the teachers quickly saddled her with predictions of achieving A*s.  This is course is great for the school helping them exceed their targets and make them look good in the league tables.  The teachers will be able to take credit for the results and prove their worth in a system that is now based so heavily on paperwork, evidencing added value and results.  Exam results are as much about the school as the kids who sit them.  Consequently there is enormous pressure on my daughter, and she has cracked under it.

She has told me how certain teachers have given her a hard time because she got a high B and not an A in a mock exam.  Seriously?? Is this the way to motivate a teenager?  She was made to feel like she wasn't good enough and underachieving.  When 48% of her peers will fail to even get the expected standard of 5 GCSE passes, why put pressure on someone who is doing perfectly well?  Can they not concentrate on the low achievers and help a few of them succeed?  Ella will do just fine, but not if she is made to feel worthless in the process.

I have come to realise that as long as you get a grade C or above in English and Maths and three other passes, no one really cares what GCSE grades you get.  Employers aren't interested in what you got at school when you were 15 or 16.  So whether you get an A or a B is irrelevant.  For me, my daughter's mental state, self esteem and confidence are far more important than whether she gets A*s on her exam certificates.

My eldest son performed OK at school.  He wasn't highly academic but achieved above average results.  School tried to pressure him into the university route which I felt from the start was not for him.  He went into college but clearly had no desire to pursue academia.  After failing his first year we stepped in and helped him find the confidence to leave education, in spite of the teachers trying to make him persevere.  He has gone on to excel in the workplace and is doing very well as a System's Analyst.  He didn't need A'Levels or a degree to get where he is.  It isn't always the right route.

Megan is a high achiever and walked away with 7 A*s and 5 As at GCSE.  She went on to get her A'Levels and is now in her final year at University.  She has however, come to the conclusion that she feels pigeon-holed by her degree and after she graduates plans to take a completely different direction.  I am proud of her for coming to this conclusion because ultimately it is her happiness that is the most important thing.  She hasn't wasted three years at university because she will have a good, well valued degree and has learned many life lessons.  But life as a number-cruncher does not excite her at 20 years of age.  She will have her whole life to work out what and who she wants to be. Number-crunching can wait!

There is too much pressure on our teens.  The options they take to decide which GCSEs they want to do is made out to be the most vital decision of their lives, when in reality you are just trying to find subjects that actually fit into the timetable.  Then you have to pick A'Levels.  Again there is so much pressure on kids to pick the right subjects.  I told Ella to pick what she enjoys.  Unless you have a specific career goal in mind, it really doesn't matter.  It's all UCAS points at the end of the day.  Generally, once you get to university you are told to forget everything you've learned up to that point.  And who really knows what they want to be when they grow up anyway.  Life will kick up all manner of opportunities and unexpected directions.  I'm one for embracing what comes along.

I have come to realise that the mental health of my children and their self-esteem is far more important than any exam results they get.  I want them to do their best, but not at any cost.  I hope they succeed in becoming what they want to be, I hope they will be hard working and take pride in their achievements.  But I also hope they know when enough is enough.  I don't want them crumbling in the face of unnecessary pressure, just to satisfy OFSTED or a teacher's targets.  I want them to enjoy their education.  I do not want them to dread it.  Life is about so much more than that.  I do not want their joie de vivre sucked out in the face of undue pressure to perform.

I am so proud of my children.  I don't need an A* to prove how great they are.

My Girls are Worth So Much More than their Exam Results!


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