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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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A guest piece over at the Guardian Higher Education section:

I remain critical of academia's kowtowing to the job market but, in this case, the two coincidentally align; the ability to think logically and systematically present the case for an idea is shared by learning and the commercial sector. Higher education must intervene before it slips further.

Secondary schools are not adequately preparing students for higher education

Featured image by ChrisM70 under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

P.S. I've just noticed that the version on the Guardian is far more businesslike and brusque in tone. I'm therefore posting the version with connective adverbs below:

Nobody, particularly Higher Education, is served by the direction of humanities examination in schools

In the past few years there has been extensive debate on "dumbing down" in British secondary-school education. By this it is meant that standards are falling, examinations are universally easier and all students achieve better results. The main point at which Higher Education encounters this phenomenon is at the entrance stage. We ask: how are we to distinguish between applicants at university admission? As Mary Beard put it recently, "A few weeks later, when we've made our decisions, there'll be the inevitable sequel - a front-page story about some impeccably qualified candidate (usually female and photogenic) who has been turned down thanks to utter incompetence on our part or outright discrimination." That said, students in my English Literature seminars are as bright and engaged as one could wish. Instead, where they usually fall down is in the struggle to write a structured piece of argumentative work. This is not of their doing. Instead, blame should squarely be pointed at the examination system, from GCSE to A-Level, in service of which these students have been mercilessly drilled. This strange deviation from traditional teaching has led to additional problems for Higher Education, be that in the cost of running additional seminars to bring them up to speed, or in additional strain on student support services; being suddenly thrust into such a radical set of new expectations is incredibly stressful for students.

For those unfamiliar with these changes in secondary school humanities examination, they can be easily summarised: point, quotation, point made. An exemplar piece of persuasive writing in History or Literature will no longer take the form of a strong thesis and then a consistent marshalling of evidence to support such a statement. Rather, the student is asked to make a series of observations pertaining to the question, with a single quotation for each, followed by a concluding statement to the effect that the quotation supports its respective remark. "George Orwell believes that war can solve problems. As he says in Nineteen Eighty-Four: "WAR IS PEACE". Saying war is peace shows that peace can come from war."

You may think that's a joke, but unfortunately the reality is not far from this. On paper, the Literature GCSE specification pays lip service and admiration to work that includes a "sophisticated awareness of the social and historical context". However, in a recent conversation with a principle examiner from one of the major examination bodies, the true nature of this was revealed. In her view, what was meant by "social and historical context" was "quotation from the text". So not social or historical context, then. This statement was made in reference to a paper on Orwell's Animal Farm. Devoid of historical and social context, I'm guessing that this is a charming tale of life on a farm that goes wrong thanks entirely to a bunch of dastardly pigs.

The other truly unfunny aspect here is that structure of argument is irrelevant. Allow me to give another quotation from this examiner: "of course it's nice if they write an introduction, but they won't get any marks for it". Which candidates are best served by this approach? It's certainly not those at the top; they'll be writing vast portions of work for which they'll receive no marks. I'd argue that it is also not beneficial to those at the bottom. Will they have a better appreciation of history or literature as a result of an examination structure that awards them a better mark for being able to list off pre-learnt snippets, with no structure and hence achieve a better grade? Those who gain the most from this situation are the middling types who are full of ideas, but are never taught to structure their thoughts; after all, what would be the point? There's no incentive. One of the key reasons for this change must, surely, be the ease of marking (and therefore lower rates of pay for non-specialist markers) that is afforded by a quantifying approach; make no mistake, this is a mathesis of assessment in the humanities disciplines.

As I began, we usually worry about this system at the time of admission. It's becoming painfully clear, though, that students are not suffering the most at this point, other than having been given a sense of false hope, but rather once they enter university itself. We expect them to develop these critical argumentative skills over the course of a month or so at the beginning of their degree and have to run additional classes to cover this lapse. These skills should have been fostered over the previous 5 years. Furthermore, this adds a huge degree of pressure to already overburdened students; I have seen a marked rise in students signed off for stress and illness. As we enter a new era of uncertainty and, no doubt, focus upon employability statistics, we should carefully note that this system serves neither education nor business. I remain critical of academia's kowtowing to the job market but, in this case, the two coincidentally align; the ability to think logically and systematically present the case for an idea is shared by learning and the commercial sector. Higher Education must intervene before it slips further.