VIEWS: GCSEs not improved by cultural activities? Perhaps it’s the exams (and the system) that need improving….

There was a very interesting item in The Guardian on 12th March (which you can read here– no paywall) which claimed that a new study had determined that cultural activities had no impact upon the educational grades of pupils.

The study, due to appear in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, says in its summation “It is beguiling to believe that increasing pupils’ levels of cultural capital will have a positive influence on school GCSE outcomes. It is tempting to theorise that visits to museums or historic venues might be helpful in igniting interests in history, and that visits to the theatre might similarly cultivate learning in drama. On deeper reflection, it is difficult to plausibly describe mechanisms by which the exposure to certain extracurricular activities would influence outcomes in other school GCSE subjects.”

While acknowledging that reading activities did have a discernable impact upon grade attainment, the study’s questionable assertion that cultural activities have no impact upon exam grades must be challenged as being ridiculously binary.

Cultural visits and activities will introduce children to new people, things, ideas and ways of thinking and relating to the world.

My husband, therapist Juan Carlos Gouveia, explains that children mentally operate exclusively through the emotional side of their mind as they learn up until around the age of 8, which is when the logic part of the mind begins to develop. A productive, modern educational system needs to support and nourish both sides of young people’s minds, and not sacrifice one over the other.

There are many things that our UK education system fails to provide, in its focus on the skills which make our youngsters cannon-fodder for call centres, retail and service industries (it’s an uncomfortable truth but still a truth nevertheless). I’ll come back to that later.

And what about the inequality of the exam process itself? Often criticised as unfit and outdated as GCSEs are, is this REALLY how we want to measure our youngsters’ development?

We all know that some young people sail through exams, whereas others find them a psychological hill to climb. This has little correlation to the actual intelligence of the child, as anguished parents argue every single year, as kids look on, powerless.

It is often glibly said that knowledge is power. However, the real power comes from the understanding of that knowledge, not its simple acquisition.

Perhaps instead of holding the exams as a standard, we should look at changing the model of examination to be less mechanistic and more human. After all, our young people are not machines.

With the disruption and deep emotional upsets that Covid has wrought upon so many young people, isn’t it time to humanise this failing, binary system which seeks to pigeonhole them, all too often incorrectly and with immense damage to their future lives.

With growing understanding of neurodiversity, this too must be brought into the educational system to include rather than exclude those who don’t function just like everyone else.

Young people need support, understanding and connection, not to be told to jump through hoops at the sound of a bell, and then to be told they’ve “failed” if they haven’t conformed to this outdated system of categorising humans, in itself a vague and sloppy process.

A vibrant, dynamic, diverse, creative society is never the product of “cookie-cutter” schooling.

The experience of being alive, being human is so many things – confusing, joyful, sad, terrifying, risky, scary, incredible, awesome, humbling and heartwarming.

I have worked with many teachers in previous times and met many fantastic, caring, hard-working, dedicated and inspiring teachers who are a credit to their profession who give so much to their students. But even these caring professional can only do so much when they are operating within an outdated system which puts tick boxes ahead of talent, scores instead of humanity and organic personal growth.

Wouldn’t it be great if our education system encouraged people to live, as well as work? How? By teaching them THE STUFF THAT REALLY MATTERS. By informing and advising them about things that are relevant to them in their development as functioning members of society, such as to how to maintain a loving relationship, how to ask for help, how to understand a setback, taking care of your own mental health and wellbeing, how to understand people of different views, how to understand and respect your own sexual orientation, how to manage money, how to come to terms with death and grief, how to deal with your own feelings, self-care and self-respect, dispute resolution, how to deal with social media, how to recognise abusive behaviour, peer pressure and how to handle it, how to eat for good health and good mood, how to respect and care for others, what addictions are- and how they can be overcome, how to focus your energy on looking after yourself. And so many, many more.

It is in these unquantifiable, abstract, creative, areas where theatre, art and culture can help young people come to terms with, and better understand, the world and themselves, by encouraging them to think, to question, ultimately to give them the tools to care for themselves better. Young people’s happier lives should be our country’s foremost aim. A better future for them means a better future for us all.

One Reply to “VIEWS: GCSEs not improved by cultural activities? Perhaps it’s the exams (and the system) that need improving….”

  1. This is an excellent article, thought- provoking in its highlighting of the problems with our current education system and its suggestions for possible improvements. Being involved in education all my life, I heartily concur with the the need to adapt provision to suit individual needs but, as Gary rightly points out, this is practically impossible with the constraints imposed upon teachers and, I would add, with ridiculously large class sizes.

    With regard to cultural enrichment activities, I am convinced that they are a valuable and inspiring resource. A visit to the Mermaid theatre to see a young Ian Mckellen as Richard II fuelled my life-long love of Shakespeare and passion for English Literature. Yes, reading is of the utmost imortance, but so is a taste of all the ‘other extra-curricular activities’ dismissed by the recent study.

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