I struggled a lot with education up until this point, and that might sound surprising, coming from somebody who always wanted to go to university – the part of education that is truly optional (and comes with a lot of debt) – but there’s a good reason why. I always struggled to understand the way I was being educated, and in many cases, not being educated.
By the time I was eight years old, I was pretty much over the whole primary school thing. I was bored. It had frustrated me the entire time I was there. Maybe that much was just my primary school – I was always incredibly eager to learn, and primary school only seemed interested in limiting that, in holding me back. I joined nursery already perfectly able to read and with a basic ability to write, and fully ready to continue doing so. Yet according to my parents, the one and only time I’ve ever had a full-blown argument with a teacher was in nursery – because I wanted to practise writing, and they wanted me to scribble instead.
Apparently I wasn’t having that. They had to call my parents in because I refused so adamantly. It seemed they feared that me sitting in a corner practising spelling and writing would be somehow harmful to the other kids.
And that’s pretty much how my primary school career continued. I was impatient with the whole thing, frustrated at the idea of being on the reading levels (you remember, those colour-coded books that were all exactly the same and equally as boring) when I was perfectly able to read Harry Potter instead. It took a lot of my parents arguing with the school for them to concede and allow me to skip reading levels, and soon after that I was bringing the Order of the Phoenix in, or the Beatrix Potter books, much to their astonishment. Around the same time, I had to ask special permission to be allowed to write in joined-up handwriting in class, something I’d learned how to do on my own.
It didn’t help that I couldn’t stand my last two years in primary school – in year five, I had a very incompetent teacher (in my eyes), whose grammar and spelling were atrocious, and I frequently found myself wondering how it was I knew more than her. And in year six, I spent an entire term – yes, an entire third of the year – actually teacherless. That frustrated me enough, as I actually wanted to do well in my SATs. But my school didn’t care. And then they got an Outstanding on their OFSTED report of the same year, which I actually had to laugh at, it was so ridiculous a concept.
Then I came to secondary school, and I was over the moon… for about a year or two. I was so happy that finally, I was being given lots to learn and I was exploring all these new things. And then in year nine, I started my GCSEs, very much ready to drop subjects like art and technology, which I wasn’t really interested in. And at that point, things started turning foul again. If I’m not mistaken, Michael Gove came into his position as Education Secretary or whatever he was at that point, and it was he who made the change from modular GCSEs to linear while I had already started them and so was pulled from exams literally one week beforehand. And that entire year I’d had a hopelessly incompetent maths teacher – teachers in subsequent years were playing catch-up with my class we’d learned so little.
Yet it was more than this that frustrated me. I hated studying the English Language GCSE, which seemed ridiculously juvenile in too many ways, not least for the fact that at one point we were being quizzed on apostrophes. And in English Literature I was astounded at the constraints on having your own opinion – the questions seemed designed to catch you out, to force you into one opinion. Indeed, across all subjects, it seemed exams were designed to give you as low a mark as possible.
So I looked to A Levels as my saviour, because surely, I’d be allowed opinions then. Surely then, only studying the subjects I really loved, I’d be able to thrive. But boy was I wrong! The exams and mark schemes in English Literature were astonishingly convoluted, ludicrously so. The questions were always about how an author did something – whether you believed they did or not. And half the time they made no sense to man nor beast. I vividly remember the mark scheme for my AS Level, where there were four AOs (Assessment Objectives), and the exam had three questions – see if you can follow this, because it took me two years and a resit to figure it out:
For even-numbered questions in question one, AOs 1, 3 and 4 will be assessed. For odd-numbered questions in question one, AO2 will be assessed. For question two, AOs 1-3 will be assessed, although candidates may use AO4 to support their argument.
Now, that is actually better phrasing than the exam board ever used, but it didn’t help that the actual specifications were just as convoluted, making the assessment objectives even harder to understand.
Even in Creative Writing, for which the entire purpose of the course was propagated to be the encouragement of creativity in writing, turned out to be prescriptive. You had to do this in a piece, had to do that – and if an examiner happened to dislike your work, even if there was nothing wrong with it, you’d fail.
All through my GCSE and A Level years, I failed to grasp why marking essays in particular was so ridiculous. It seemed clear to me that if you were given a question to answer, you should just be able to take it, consider it, and write a reasoned argument with evidence backing up your claims, and that should be it. Instead, I was being forced into one opinion, into having to show exactly what they wanted to see, penalised if I had another opinion, and being made to find ways to include basically irrelevant material just to fit the mark schemes.
Maybe if I’d surrendered to it all I’d have done better, and not had so much trouble. Maybe I’d have done as I could see others in my year did, acing exams, all because they conformed exactly to what was wanted of them. Maybe if I’d submitted to the constraints on creativity I’d have been able to follow it better.
But look at my nursery tale – that wasn’t me then, and it isn’t me now. My parents always encouraged the freedom of ideas and creativity, the importance of imagination, and the belief in the power of knowledge and real education, not the crap I and hundreds of thousands of others in my generation were being given.
And honestly, I can see how easy it is for people to give up on education when in this system. I know many people who just didn’t have the time for it, who put in minimal effort and effectively flunked out, even though they were perfectly intelligent. To be perfectly honest, I’d probably have been one of those people if it wasn’t for my absolute determination to go to university, which brings me to the ultimate reason for this post.
I’ve been here for two months now, and what an enlightening two months it’s been. One of the first things our professors said to us in freshers week was that we needed to take the things we’d been taught throughout secondary and A Level education, and to forget it all. Those words were like music to my ears, I’d been waiting so long to hear them.
Indeed, the first question my Literature in Time module seminar tutor asks each week is, “So what did you think?”, after we read each new text. Moreover, the questions we have to write essays for across my modules are questions with no higher motive, asking for exactly what I’ve always wanted to give – a well-balanced argument and discussion, evidenced and reasoned. To show competence in understanding of a text, rather than how well you’ve memorised a mark scheme. They want you to think for yourself, formulate your own opinion, volunteer something they haven’t heard a million times before. They want you to be creative.
Honestly, being here and hearing those words, being given a First on my first submitted essay, is like finally breathing a long, incredible sigh of relief. Being encouraged to give your opinions and allowed to argue your side is so incredibly freeing – so much so that it actually came as quite the shock, being told to ‘write an essay’ without being told that it had to include this, this and this.
It makes me so contented to know that this is what I’ve been waiting for, that finally I’ve found the environment I’ve been yearning for since I was four years old and arguing with a nursery teacher, that there is a place where people literally just want to learn and explore and debate their opinions regarding material and subjects that they love.
It just makes me wish that the rest of education wasn’t so much of a hindrance to learning.