Minds devoured by dog-eat-dog

March 16, 2007

Today's exam culture in schools is breeding a competitive, unhappy, unhealthy and narrowly educated generation, Maria Misra claims

Most people will have been shocked by the findings of the recent Unicef report that placed Britain at the bottom of a league table of child welfare. Much attention in the press has been paid to young children, and to those at the bottom of poverty and educational attainment leagues.

But there are also problems at the other end of the spectrum among the high-achieving students who have made it to university.

Britain did especially badly in criteria relating to children's family and peer relationships and their sense of subjective wellbeing. Among peers, it seems, the prevailing sentiment is not friendship and trust but intense feelings of competitiveness.

Commentators have focused on our obsession with the ubiquitous league tables; and teachers have drawn attention to the problem. Last year, the National Association of Head Teachers Conference pointed out that whereas before 1987 schoolchildren faced only two external tests, they are now tested in seven of their 13 years of schooling. Testing of a narrow curriculum has crowded out all other aspects of the educational experience.

This obsessive preoccupation with exam performance and competitiveness is confirmed by my experience of teaching at Oxford University over the past decade. While the crowning glory of the Oxford system - the single or paired tutorial - is supposed to operate along the lines of an ideal Socratic dialogue, it is in danger, owing to student expectations and demands, of morphing into intensive sessions of high-level exam-cramming.

My own experience was confirmed by the findings of a study into Oxford students' attitudes. This revealed that students and teachers had radically different notions about the purpose of the tutorial - and indeed of classes and seminars. Many students did not see these as opportunities to broaden their minds, to engage in dialogue with specialists or to develop their ideas in debate with students, but as places to garner tips, advice and feedback on how to do well in exams.

One would expect competitiveness to be a characteristic of an institution such as Oxford. It has always placed the tutorial above classes and lectures in its hierarchy of teaching and, perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, students have not developed the habit of peer discussion.

Recent suicides among Oxford students have also attracted a critical press, with suggestions that the university is overpressured, its workloads are too high and its terms too short. Yet these things have always been true.

When I was an undergraduate 20 years ago there were, if anything, more tutorials and essays per week than there are today, and the atmosphere was more notable for intense jockeying for status than for a sense of brotherly love.

But 20 years ago it was not the case that students treated their education as merely a preparation for exams. The test-oriented and narrowly competitive environment of school has taught them not to value education for its own sake, but largely as a preparation for exams. This, surely, must contribute to what one author of the Unicef report refers to as Britain's "dog-eat-dog" society. We have a generation of students who are interested only in exam outcomes, who measure their own value according to the grades accorded them in tests, and who see their peers as competitors, not friends. This approach to life, as psychologists have long warned, is the road to depression and unhappiness.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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