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Home > Culture and Society

Education: Time for a GCSE in realism?

28 February 2005

Yet again the subject of A-levels reared its spotty head this week as Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University, said A-levels should be scrapped. And you can see why.

Last year more than half the applicants to Cambridge had three or more A grades. Of those the university accepted, 93 per cent had three or more A grades. It's like Attack of the Clones, but with the sort of spods who manage to look weird just by wearing a normal pair of jeans.

Dr Parks wants a different system of grading pupils - in particular a proposal for a four-year diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds with A+ and A++ grades for the brightest bunnies, as suggested by a review carried out for the government by Sir Mike Tomlinson. You have to wonder why the government bothered, because it then promptly announced that A-levels and GCSEs are to stay, albeit with reforms.

There'll be a general diploma for students who do well, and, as ever, there's going to be more 'vocational' education, ie. grafting an academic qualification onto skills that anyone can do with minimal practise: serving food, working in a shop, stacking shelves, picking your nose, wanking, etc.

Education at the moment seems to be a bit of a mess, but it would be wrong to describe the constant government tinkering as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Partly because the situation is not nearly so grave, and partly because you'll probably soon be able to get a City & Guilds in Sun Recliner Re- alignment in a Seafaring Environment.

But if you've followed this week's education shenanigans, you may have picked up on the bizarre fact that the government seems to include drama studies in the category of 'vocational' education, as though acting isn't one of the flakiest, luck-based careers imaginable. 'It's get up and go rather than just sitting behind a desk talking about things,' said one teenage drama student, Emma, on BBC news.

This innocuous-but-gormless comment actually highlights the fact that if one change needs to be made to the educational system, it's introducing a GCSE in 'Not Being So Fucking Naive'.

Why? Well, exam grade 'inflation' (what Dr Parks is complaining about) shouldn't be a problem. If it is, it's little more than a technical one, ie. making sure the questions and grades reflect the actual spread of ability on the part of students.

The wider problem with education is that the government appears to be cynically pandering to the general public's own delusions. The aforementioned drama student Emma may turn out to be the next Judi Dench. Or more probably the next Michelle Collins. But if she pursues acting she's most likely to encounter long periods of unemployment interspersed with getting 100 to help fill up the audience of Trisha.

This sounds a bit harsh, and there's nothing wrong with studying drama, but improbable dreams are best left to individuals and not something to be encouraged by the state. And education does seem to be guilty of this. This contributor, after graduating from university, enrolled at a local college to learn to type, and, on discovering the courses were effectively free, started a City & Guilds in video production.

On the City & Guilds course a good 90 per cent of the students were, frankly, fucking useless. They weren't much good at the course itself and just not very bright. In less egalitarian times few of them would still have been studying, and in a competitive industry like TV none of them stood any real chance of getting a
job, especially with the minimal skills imparted by a City & Guilds. But the tutor would say things like 'You'll need to know this, when you're a TV producer.'

The overall impression was one of mass delusion. Almost all the students would chop and change courses as soon as they found anything too difficult, and none of them were studying a subject that would be recognised as a solid, properly-recognised qualification, like an A-level in history. But students and tutors alike managed to talk up what they were doing, even though none of them could honestly have said their studies were leading anywhere except to the lower end of the job market.

The real shame about this sort of collective fibbing is that it causes some people to simply waste their time and others not to take steps to get closer to their goal. It's the old media studies chestnut: if you want to work in the media, you're probably better off with a traditional academic degree, not one in media studies.

What makes this kind of nonsense possible is the fact that most of us are a bit naive at one time or another. When you're young, being naive is part of the territory. If you don't think your shit band is going to be the next U2, there's something wrong with you. But it's not something that should be encouraged by the education system.

And boy do we like to be naive. Even though taking the piss out of media studies is practically a British tradition by now, contemporary university students often have a deeply limited view of what they intend to do with the rest of their lives. It's a kind of simplistic world view of what would be 'cool', ie.

Something in 'the media' or 'creative';

Being in 'business', whatever that might mean, though not an accountant, which is uncool. (Curiously, this view completely ignores the fact that 'business' is unutterably dull, and nothing like the film Wall Street);

Teaching (although only as a stopgap while you write your novel).

Thus it's not hard to conclude that education at all levels would benefit from a large injection of realism. This isn't about slagging off media studies or sneering at naive students (although why not?). Being more realistic about education and a career afterwards would help a lot of people make better life decisions, and actually stop others making genuinely bad ones.

But that might burst the happy bubble in which we have education that seems to exist purely for its own sake, and which often barely benefits the students who devote years of their lives to it.

A common accusation levelled at the government is that it believes 'all shall have prizes', and New Labour doesn't seem terribly averse to this, allowing grade 'inflation' to continue and mediocre courses to multiply. But it's actually worse than 'all shall have prizes'. All shall have prizes, but the prizes will be rubbish.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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