Front page


The wrong kind of work

10 Feb 11 | Re: Wasted effort

In the annual mope about A-levels getting easier, one of the standard counters to the suggestion that the exams might be getting devalued is “Rubbish! Sixth-formers are working harder than ever to pass these exams!”

The people who say this say it as though it is unanswerable evidence that the exams are as robust as ever, but I am not convinced that they are right. I think they should question the type of work that all these sixth-formers are doing. When the system changed, just after 2000, to the AS/A2 system we have today, all the exams became modular. That meant that instead of being examined on your whole course in one go at the end of two years, you started being examined on bits of it four times a year. To put it another way, it meant that instead of doing predominantly revision for, say, two months at the end of his or her two-year course, a typical sixth-former now does predominantly revision for, say, six weeks at four distinct times spread out over those two years.

The maths: A normal school year has 37 weeks. Years which end in A-level exams are truncated, so you can cut six weeks off, making 31 weeks. So out of 62 weeks of their course, a sixth-former might now spend 24 doing predominantly revision; that’s just under 40% of it. For every three days they spend learning things, they spend two days going back over those things to make sure they have really learnt them. Instead of devouring learning like a hungry wolf, they stand there cow-like, chewing over little clumps of fact, swallowing, regurgitating and chewing them over again.

When you’re doing revision, that’s the time when you’re normally working hardest. Therefore, it’s no surprise that today’s sixth-formers, in revision mode 40% of the time, are working harder than yesterday’s, who were only in revision mode 12% of the time. But the trouble with revision mode is that you aren’t learning anything new. It is quite literally a textbook case of duplication of effort. It’s boring, it does you no good outside the exam itself, and I consider it a waste of time that any education system ought to try to keep to a minimum. For my university finals, I tried to spend as much of my exam preparation as possible reading about new things in order to broaden rather than sharpen my knowledge - vision rather than revision - and I would recommend that approach. Alas, it isn’t what people are encouraged to do.

Our exam system sucks sixth-formers into a cycle of learn-revise-exam-forget, which to my mind is far less conducive to proper learning than the old system of learn-learn-learn-learn-learn-revise-exam. So sixth-formers lose out, and to make it even more miserable, so do their schoolmates. At my school, sixth-formers used to take the lead in extra-curricular activities like sport, music and drama, and be prefects, and contribute in many other little ways. I wonder how much Britain’s school life has been damaged by the proliferation of these hard-working sixth-formers that the AS-defenders are so pleased about.

Finally, I’d like to question how useful an exam is that can be passed simply by working hard. Shouldn’t examiners look for creativity, originality and insight? These qualities aren’t developed by work, but by acquiring a love of the subject - something that you’re far less likely to do if the subject is jabbing you with its exam stick every few months. When people say ‘Students have to work hard to pass these exams’, I hear ‘This is a Philistine system that has nothing to do with real education, and the wretches who are its products will grow to despise every nugget of knowledge that they are made to choke down.’

It’s all very upsetting, and to my mind it’s just one example of how an over-fondness for work as an end in itself is giving society warped goals and values that will do nobody any good.

Posted by STANLEY ACCRINGTON at 18:38

[Back to main blog]

[Or dive into the blarchive...]

Take me home