Writer and broadcaster

So you’re good at exams. So what? Published in The Independent.

It would be woefully unfair of me to judge Michael Gove on his physical appearance. Yet he would have me judged, perhaps my whole life defined, on something equally superficial – how I perform over three hours sitting an exam. After 2015, there will be no more GCSEs. We will have one type of exam (currently nicknamed “Gove levels”), and it will be an all-or-nothing business.

You’ll pass or you’ll fail. There will be no re-sitting of individual modules; the entire exam would have to be repeated. Children will be judged on nothing other than their exam paper. This, it has been said, will mean that the “top grades will only go to the brightest pupils”. But how do you judge what being bright is? Lots of very clever children do really well in exams, but lots of them don’t and are left feeling worthless.

A host of studies – as far back as the 1930s – show that when learning becomes end-orientated (“getting good marks”), it has the effect of making a pupil lose interest, not just in that subject, but in learning itself. Also, it doesn’t lead to any real understanding or analysis of a subject, just the ability to retain certain facts, and even then often not for very long. Furthermore, it is the children from homes with lower incomes who will lose out – their parents unable to afford those tutors who specialise in teaching little save the ability to pass that damned exam.

Really, Michael Gove should not be called Education Secretary. He seems to care little for what education really means in the widest sense. He should be called qualifications or exams secretary. It would be a lot more accurate.

I object to children being tested, often defined, by exams anyway. Exams are a lazy way for lazy people to label people. I am a huge fan of learning and education, just not the rigidity of our education system. I go along with it because it’s what you need to get a job. But I think of it like passing your driving test: a necessary evil and you do your real learning once you’ve passed.

I have personal baggage. I cannot learn from reference books. The information just doesn’t go in. In an exam situation, I never did well or would do well now. And anyway, the “subjects” I think I’m good at, and to some extent have made a career out of – friendship, empathy, lateral thinking, getting to the nub of a problem – aren’t taught in school. I left school feeling stupid. It took me years to realise that I was bright, just not exam-bright.

The thought of that pressure on a young mind, the finality of how you perform over a mere three hours, terrifies me. I wish Gove could be cleverer about what to replace GCSEs with. But I guess you can pass any number of exams, and actually still be quite stupid. Gove was in the top stream at school, but as a former teacher of his said: “Combative debating is his strength, not common sense.”