Thursday 16 August 2018

A Level Results - Our education system is not fit for purpose

Image result for Exam results
Exam stress
Today my youngest child received his A level results. We've been through this three times. Each time the pattern is similar. A levels are done over two years, during this time each of my children selected a University of their choice and then had to buckle down to get the results. The exams are done in May and June and then there is a 'phoney war' as they finish and the results are awaited. For all involved, the whole process is highly stressful. We are lucky in as much as all of ours acheived the grades to get their preference. For those who don't there are three options, clearing, resits or get a job. This year, students have had the pleasure of a complete overhaul of the way the exams are marked, with coursework no longer playing a role.

As I won't have to endure this process again as a parent, this is really my last opportunity to give my views on the whole system from the coal face. I also have the added perspective of being an employer, running a small business. As our company is a music studio, we are somewhere that many would like to work. We get to see first hand what the educational system produces. Of the twelve people we currently employ, 1 is recently graduated, one has just done A Levels, One has just done GCSE's and one is at Uni. Another did a degree in Sound Engineering and joined us last year. Most have worked for us through the process of education (apart from the lad who has just done GCSE's who is a new recruit). For them the studio is an ideal part time job. There are a fixed number of shifts and they have organised themselves into a WhatsApp group to cover each other. They have to deal with the public, take bookings and deal with equipment issues. Evening shifts are usually 6pm-12pm (although staff can leave earlier as studios shut at 11pm and when close down is done they can go).

So I get to chat with them, see how they deal with the public, see how quickly they learn. As we have a requirement that staff have experience of music, we probably get a higher than aaverage intelligence and commitment level than you might find piling up tins of beans in TESCOS. What is abundently clear is that the school and university system does not prepare people who are fit for purpose in the workplace. The GCSE and A Level system is totally geared to producing results that look good in school league tables. Interpersonal skills needed for dealing with customers are not developed. Problem solving is not a valued skill, as pupils are slavishly pushed to follow the syllabus. I suspect that teachers don't really relish being challenged and it is easier to get results simply by using a follow the herd mentality.  What we notice is that the young people who work for us develop hugely over the first few months. They become confident talking to people and we try and build problem solving skills. When you are dealing with customers, you can't simply shrug your shoulders and say "not my problem mate".

I also participate in the NCS - The Challenge scheme, where young people build citizenship skills and are mentored to deliver community related projects. We get groups of young people come down to the studio for mentoring and to receive feedback on presentations. We've been participating in the scheme for maybe five or six years. I have noticed that over the period, the young people have become more shy and reserved. The first year I participated in the scheme, there was lively banter from the group and a bit of friendly heckling (which I encouraged) as I try and make my sessions interactive. This has become markedly less so. The young people still prepare excellent pitches and have a passion, but seem far more reluctant to interact with adults. At one recent session, they told me that one team, working on a charity project supporting a community garden project found it difficult interacting with some of the people who were volunteers at the site (although they were very inspired by the leader of the scheme).

It is clear to me, as  a father, an employer and a mentor that the results based system is causing a huge dam of social problems to build up. We see this in the ever increasing number of young people on medication for stress and anxiety. Yesterday there was an illumiating article in the Guardian on obesity by George Monbiot, who is one of my favourite writers in the paper. As I was reading this, a very interesting thing struck me. At our studios, we see between 1,500 and 2,000 musicians a week pass through. When I thought about it, very few of these are what I'd call obese. By definition, being a musician requires a higher level of mental stimulation than someone who spends their life in front of the TV. To play in a band requires a greater degree of social interaction. Could it be that isolation is another contributory factor to obesity? I am not a scientist, but I'd be fascinated to see if there is any correlatuon between being in a band and being a healthy weight. What has this got to do with education? Well music is one aspect of education and self improvement that people have to be self motivated to achieve in. Unlike GCSE's and A Levels, the end game is creative and productive. It is also achieved in collaboration rather than by being locked in a bedroom for months on end.

The UK is at a major crossroads. When we leave the EU we will see the end of a huge saftey blanket. We will have to compete in the world, often with people in countries who are far more motivated than the average UK citizen. Our only real assets are the rule of law and the inventiveness of our population. As someone who works in creative industries and who understands their contribution, it is vital that our young people develop problem solving skills, interpersonal skills and are motivated to do great things. The exam factory schools so prevalent in Barnet are not doing this. When it comes to my own experience, all of the most useful things I learned have been from teachers, but not teachers at schools I went to. I was totally put off English at Finchley Catholic High School doing O Levels. I thought I had no aptitude. As I got into music, I started writing songs. At the time I had a friend who was an elderly Jamaican poet. He was reading my lyrics and said "Man, what is this?" I said "It's a some lyrics". He replied "Who would want to listen to that, it sounds like someone is shouting at you. Do you really like people shouting at you? You have to make the song start a conversation with them". He then carried on "In life you will find one day that you will need a weapon to defend yourself. The best weapon you can have is your language. It will save you when a gun or a knife can't. So learn to use the English language properly. One day it will save your life". As I had great respect for him, I didn't argue, but I didn't really understand what he was saying. I did however think about what he was saying about my lyrics. Over the years, It was the best lesson I ever received. I just wish I'd had a teacher who could have given me the passion when I was at school. As it was I had five wasted years staring out of the window. My personal view is that the most dangerous word in the English langauge is "Syllabus". It means that learning is restricted. It is dangerous and wrong. It puts people off and discriminates against creative people.

As for Universities, I've yet to meet a graduate of a college that teaches sound engineering that can run a full band recording session, despite doing a three year course. In contrast, all of our past and present chief engineers have been intelligent and self motivated learners, who have put the hard work in to develop their skills. What particularly irks me is that there is a training provider I use who does a three day course that gives all the skills necessary to run a band recording session. Why on earth can't this be covered in degree courses. Friends in other businesses tell me exactly the same thing.

One example of this, was on BBC London this week. An etiquette specialist on the Vanessa Feltz show explained that HSBC bank were teaching graduates to eat with knives and forks, as many couldn't and this would reflect badly on the bank when staff entertained clients. I'd assume that a blue chip company such as HSBC would get the pick of graduates, so what does it say if they can't even eat with a knife and fork?

We have to end the obsession with grades. We need more preparation for life. We need a totally different approach to the we put together the "syllabus" focussing on making people love English, solve problems in engineering subjects and lean life skills in practical subjects. We need more people to mentor, especially from minority groups. I'd like to see every pupil have to study "life skills". Making mortgage applications, counselling the bereaved, organising funerals, learning how to compare electicity bill prices, etc. I'd like to see a proper appreciation of culture. I'd like to see every student have to prepare a thesis on what they love most about music and culture in our amazing country. At Orange Hill School, I was forced to do a General Studies O Level. I had to do a project and I chose Punk Rock. It was one of only two subjects I got a B in. It was a revealation having to study a subject I loved. I don't know if my teacher, Mr Phillips reads this blog, but if he does, I think he is the man who really deserves the credit. That, to me, was a proper education. I suspect it is why I run one of London's top studios.

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