Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Illustration © Cathy SimpsonA Levels revisited

As many young people await the results of their A Levels, Sean O’Shea remembers his own college days and wonders if it’s so sweet to be 16 anymore.

At this time of the year many young people in Hastings, and all over the country, will be nervously speculating on how they fared in their A Levels and summer won’t properly commence for them until the results are out. I wish them all good luck as they face this stressful rite of passage.

My own reluctant journey through this process commenced way back in 1968/69 when I did the Irish equivalent of A Levels; it’s called the Leaving Certificate and amongst other things it acts as a filtering system for access to university. I wasn’t academically gifted and had wanted to go to the “tech” (technical school) and study carpentry, but was told that the tech was for “thickos” and better things were expected of me. To gain access to the “better things”, one had to go to college.

College was a cold, daunting, 19th century building whose motto was Quis Ut Deus? which means Who is like God? Well, we were all told that we were made in the image of God, but clearly some of us were more God-like than others.

The Leaving Certificate results would allocate each to his appropriate place in the social ranking system.

This was a carceral world where violence was banal and passive conformity rather than enquiry and critical thought was what was expected. What no one seemed to be asking was how this process was likely to affect the learning needs and psychosocial development of students, some of whom would leave as certified failures.

Popular hits of the period included Peter Sarstead’s Where Do You Go to My Lovely?

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed?
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes I do

I got a gift of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, played it constantly and dreamt of what life might be like elsewhere such as London or Paris where a cultural revolution was in full swing.

However, while the students were occupying the universities in Paris, I had my nose to the grindstone and was learning voluminous amounts of poetry, history, geography and maths by rote. I learnt how many elephants accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and what the difference was between a stalagmite and stalactite.

Though an incipient atheist I was praying to God that I might get acceptable exam results, not so much for myself but to spare my parents the shame of my possible failure and being classified as one of the thickos.


An interesting project

There was one period of relief in the monotony of this routine. This was the arrival at our college of a passionate young teacher on a placement from Dublin University. He was into the “project method” which provided some respite from the main business of teaching to the test. Though this work would not contribute any points towards the Leaving, it did give me an opportunity, for the first time in my 13 years of schooling, to make a choice in what and how I wanted to learn.

As the topic for my project I chose to study the Russian Revolution of 1917, and for many months I read all about the struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. I read Marx’s Communist Manifesto and was inspired by the idea that workers of the world might one day unite and determine their own lives. As a spin-off from this research I also became familiar with some of the writings of Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky which were not included on the required reading list.

I wondered naively about the chances of a local revolution. The social geography of my hometown was typical of many towns across the land. The priest and the bank manager lived in the big houses on the hill, the doctors, accountants, and solicitors in the main square. After that came the shopkeepers and publicans, and on the outskirts was the poorer quarter comprising the council houses with their green doors where the labouring classes lived. Beyond this were the farms large and small where some lived hand to mouth and others enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle. There were some tensions brewing between the entrepreneurial and professional middle class, as the former were beginning to gain possession of the big houses on the hill. But the presumed natural hierarchy was otherwise intact. I concluded that a revolution was not imminent, particularly with the safety valve of emigration always available to the recalcitrant and the unemployed.

With some luck and much sweat I managed to scrape through the Leaving. I was thankful for small mercies. The few in my class who were academically gifted progressed on via university to their chosen professional careers. Many who were not so gifted left college with a confirmed sense of their own inferiority. Those of us who couldn’t get work, or who didn’t otherwise fit in, emigrated.


Back to the present

These are supposed to be more enlightened days but the educational system doesn’t seem to have changed much in 40 years. As I witness the increasing pressures on young people with youth unemployment at a 17-year high, and the costs faced by those who want to progress to university also escalating, it doesn’t seem like such an easy ride. So, I’m not sure I’d want to swap places with them.

The obsession with academic achievement, exam scores, testing and classifying young people in various ways seems to continue to take precedence over the educational goal of supporting them with addressing their learning needs as flexibly as possible, and by whatever means are appropriate, for as long as they remain interested in learning.

It is a sad reflection on the condition of our state educational system that private companies are now being hired to teach young people “emotional intelligence”, social skills and team work.

It is by having the opportunity for critical, democratic engagement in their own communities, including the school itself, that young people will learn basic social and life skills which include the capacity to deal with feelings and manage conflict. It is only through this learning-by-doing that they can become responsible, self determining and creative citizens.

If young people were accorded the right to fully participate in the definition of their learning needs, in deciding the means by which these needs were addressed, and in deciding how their progress might be evaluated, fewer of them would be leaving school allegedly illiterate, innumerate and, if we are to believe employers’ reports, lacking basic social skills. Also, schools themselves would have to change in order to respond to the diversity of young people’s interests, abilities, and talents.

Many teachers might appreciate a change in their role to that of an enabler rather than a behaviour manager who has to slavishly teach to the test. They would however have to be prepared to take the risk of challenging existing institutional structures and to be willing to make common cause with their students in a project of mutual self-empowerment and social transformation.

This kind of project has been described by the critical educationalist John P Portelli as the “curriculum of life.” It acknowledges that the experiences, interests, and concerns of young people should be the main determinant of any curriculum, and it gives due weight to the exploration of the existential questions of who we are and how we might live together.

Finally, if the voting age were brought more in line with the age of criminal responsibility (now 10 years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) , the social and educational interests of young people might be taken much more seriously and carry greater political weight.

Posted 16:45 Sunday, Jul 29, 2012 In: SOS

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