I met a young friend yesterday to celebrate his success in A levels this summer and to wish him well before he goes off to study medicine at university.
We were talking about the purpose of education and the dilemma faced by educated young people who want exam success but who also want to know more, study more widely or be more creative in their learning. Here was a young man who received the best possible results; he could not have done better! Yet, he still felt short changed by a system that did not have time for his hunger for learning. It would be too inconvenient to allow schools to be places of exploration. There are judgements to be made and these are made based on results. Results are only of use because they are measurable, hence a system that only values that which can be measured.
There is so much creativity in our young people that cannot be measured and which is being devalued as a result. Worse, creativity is discouraged if it gets in the way of the things schools are required to measure.
The young man, on the threshold of an exciting university course was not complaining. The system has, after all, allowed him to embark on a course that will lead to his career of choice. It was just clear to him that, to be successful in exam terms, other things were lost on the way.
This all reminded me of this poem by Brian Patten.
The Minister for Exams
When I was a child I sat an exam.
The test was so simple
There was no way I could fail.
Q1. Describe the taste of the moon.
It tastes like Creation I wrote,
it has the flavour of starlight.
Q2. What colour is Love?
Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.
Q3. Why do snowflakes melt?
I wrote, they melt because they fall
onto the warm tongue of God.
There were other questions.
They were as simple.
I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant’s dream.
Yet today, many years later,
For my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.
Why? Because I constantly failed my exams.
Why? Well, let me set a test.
Q1. How large is a child’s imagination?
Q2. How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?
I read this in the Guardian years ago, cut it out and put it on my office wall. It appears in his collection, ‘Armada’, and I was lucky enough to hear him read it at the Bath Literature Festival a few years later. After the reading, I bought a copy and lined up to get it signed. I intended to say, “I was so glad you read ‘The Minister for Exams’ but I became tongue tied at the last minute and what came out of my mouth was nonsense. Be careful if you get to meet your heroes!
Brian Patten’s poetry is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?