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10th September 2014

Frustrating A-levels makes the prospect of university even better

As part of our Welcome Week Education Special, David Brierley tells us why he thinks the failure of A-levels and standardised testing makes university a more exciting opportunity.

At AS Level, I got a U in Critical Thinking.

I was later informed that this was because the exam board failed me on account of insulting them. This was funny at first, but later raised some more serious questions: had I said something that bad? Well, I didn’t think so at the time. I had mentioned that Standardised Testing wasn’t as effective as it was made out to be, and that the whole system of end-of-year exams placed extreme stress on students.

Yet these statements were considered to be either rude or at least subversive enough to add an extra, and somewhat less A shaped, vowel to my results sheet. The very idea that I would think that my A-levels weren’t actually that helpful was so awful that I had to have some kind of punishment. It was all very Ministry of Truth—George Orwell would have shuddered.

Now, I am proud of my A-levels nonetheless, but I will be the first to tell you that the system is inherently flawed.

For subjects such as Mathematics there is a right answer. Even still, the students at my school who studied Maths complained often and loudly. They were dropping marks for simply doing a sum in a way different to the question’s requirements—even if they came out with the correct final answer. Others would point out that they didn’t follow the instructions, and therefore didn’t show they knew the specific process required.

But that’s just it—it wasn’t so much that they were wrong, but that they didn’t follow the instructions.

Instructions are important, but what about the Arts? I shall use the example of English because I study it. We can all agree that an applicant suggesting that Romeo was a Martian is wrong—however had I stated that Romeo and Juliet is a terrible play with an incredibly weak female character, I think it unlikely that I would be attending university.

It’s only my opinion that Shakespeare’s tragic females are, overall, limp and plain characters compared to his comedies; because a relationship between a thirteen and a fifteen year old that lasted two weeks and left four people dead is not, for me, the makings of a great romance—more the front cover of the Daily Mail. Therein lies the problem. By having an opinion, by doing something differently—for the simple flaw of thinking in a way that isn’t defined by a mark scheme or a candidate number, a person becomes difficult to confine within an exam structure.

My Geography teacher always refused to grade me higher than a B because I didn’t work to the mark scheme. I ended up with 98%. My English teacher praised and challenged me to outdo myself. Yet, I only just managed the A that I needed: Why? The truth is, I don’t know—I felt both papers went equally well. If you asked the people who knew me for the last seven years, they would tell you that I’m good at English and absolutely nothing else. That’s not however what my results will tell you, they suggest Human Geography is an excellent career path and I should perhaps avoid thinking critically.

This is why I’m excited for University. More specifically I’m excited for my course because I finally, finally, get to be an individual. I can be the English Student who hates Romeo and Juliet. I can be the Metallica fan who can quote Wilde and Poe and Festus the Clown. I can be the guy who goes both to the Dojo and to Pride. I’ve still got exams to worry about, and coursework to hand in—but no longer do I have to fret if what I’m putting is correct to such an unwieldy set of criteria.

As I said, I’m proud of my A levels, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be—you don’t need me to tell you that you worked your socks off to get them. To my fellow Freshers, I would say that they don’t show you who you are, and they don’t necessarily tell you how good you are at something; they sacrifice the freedom of expression of the brightest to keep it fair for those the current education system has already failed. There’s a world out there, free from A-Levels and standardised testing. Yours is filled with whatever you choose to make of it.

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