Welcome to the website of Susan M. Coles, Artist & Arts, Creativity & Educational Consultant.

Posted in Education Education Education

My goodness but what a wonderful few days of educational explosion on the topic of Mr Gove’s leaked plans for the future of our examination system! Wonderful because it got everyone talking and I have not met anyone who does not have an “opinion” on this. But, it still worries me that the Secretary of State for Education clearly believes that he can solve all the “ills” in education on a whim and an idea written on the back of an envelope. He can’t. He simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. The people to consult and talk to are the ones who are working in education, who understand the nature of learning and the many nuances of education.

I am well qualified to speak. I’ve been there, wrote the book and got the tee shirt. I actually quite like the current GCSE for Art and Design, it allows time for young people to show that they think and they can plan and it challenges them to make work that is meaningful for them and for those that see and share that work.

I passed my eleven plus exam many years ago, more likely on the strength of my ability with English, because I struggled with Maths tests.That’s all they tested us on by the way. Maths and English. But, in reality, I can survive without prowess with numbers, because there are so many ways that I can deal with that nowadays thanks to technology, and I really have no desire to join an evening class and learn about fractions. The eleven plus was the first time I had ever sat an exam. We had to travel in a bus to another school to do it, and that was very strange. I knew that day would change the direction of my life in some way. It opened the door to another unhappy seven years of exams for me though. I also lost sight of some really good school friends who didn’t pass it and had to go to a secondary modern school, where they could only do CSE exams and be trained to cook and sew. And, on the bus home, we sat away from former friends. You didn’t mix with the “sec mod” girls. I became Peter the disciple, thrice denying Christ!

Grammar school education was rigorous and the expectations were high, so that when you did not (or could not) understand a concept you kept quiet, for fear of publicly acknowledged failure. My happy memories of school are when I was engaged with play and through friendships and, in the lower school, experiences in the magical art room. I did not enjoy much else, apart from English-because that was when we read books. In books I could escape.

I fell apart in formal exam situations, each and every time for the first five years. I have never been able to work happily when the clock is ticking, in the sparse environment of an “exam” room, with questions written on the paper in front of me, with no opportunity to actually think and let my mind reach into former learning to try and form an answer. In fact, my primary school reports are excellent and I seemingly had no problem with any subject then….but I had no exams to sit.

Every year, we had an end of term summer assembly, sitting by class in the hall. Every class had their class positions read out publicly to the whole school, from first place to last place. There were 33 people in my class and it was a long time to wait when you were in the bottom ten, which I usually was. The highest place I ever got was 19th and the lowest was 25th. In my first year of grammar school, I came bottom in Maths. I despised that waiting, I despised that public judgement, I despised the fact that you had to stand up when your name was read out. The first few names would stand up with heads high and shoulders back, smiles beaming outwards. The body language changed as the list was read. By the time they got to the bottom, we stood up (heads bowed) and sat down within seconds, so ashamed were we of our lowly positions. Our school reports always gave positions for each subject and the top girl’s marks were in a column next to yours, just so that you could see how crap you were I suppose! I used to take mine home and watch my mother read the comparisons and hear her sigh but she did always end up telling me “As long as you try your hardest, that’s enough. Are you trying your best?” I was mother, I really was.

And, when I got to the third year, my parents were called into school to meet with the head teacher. They had to be told the bad news that there was no way that I would ever pass a GCE in Maths and that meant only one thing (I was in the room at the time, I remember the hushed tones) “Susan will have to do CSE Maths”. Silence. My parents were taken aback, especially when she added that this would be a “handicap” as I would probably never get to university or teacher training college now. I was “handicapped”. Wow.

Anyway, after two years of struggling with more exams I ended up with only 4 GCE passes anyway and a pretty dismal Maths CSE grade three. The CSE group were taught separately and in a room away from the main school, that’s how bad it was! Here is the comment from my year 11 school report: “Mathematics“ Does not show much interest in Maths.”True.

I failed my Art GCE. The exam consisted of two parts. Day one was a three hour response to an unseen paper and I picked a theme of “The Building Site” and did an ink wash of builders laying bricks and scaffolding, which I thought was quite good actually but F-A-I-L. The second session was two and a half hours drawing a still life group and I remember it to this day because it was salad. Yes, my ability to do Art well was judged on a floppy lettuce (hot day) tomatoes, cucumber, a wilted bunch of spring onions, and a bottle of Heinz salad cream and some sliced bread. I thought I had drawn it well, until I stepped back and saw that the jar was leaning dangerously to the right and, with five minutes left before time ran out, I just gave up. F-A-I-L. Another re-sit, just scraped a pass second time round. Not so with French where I did two re-sits and still never passed. I can actually speak French quite well but I could not perform in the oral exam, some can, some can’t. C’est la vie.

Sixth form was better and simply because you got to choose your subjects. I still did not respond well in the formal exam situation and my reports for those two years say the same thing over and over again, my essays were good but I was not answering questions properly in the exam hall. I must have been inspired at the end though, or maybe I just saw that there was a door to another world possible after school, because my “A” level results astounded even me. I didn’t do that well in Art (we were made to do our painting exam in the school hall, for some very strange reason, with paints balanced precariously on two exam desks shoved together) but my English and RE results actually saw me getting second place in the sixth form “A” level results. In all my years at school, I had never walked onto the stage at prize giving for anything and now they wanted me to go back and collect a prize. (But, it wasn’t the Maths prize of course.)

I did get to university and I did get a first class honours degree and a recent Master’s with distinction. I also re-did my Art GCSE three times in the past decade, sitting GCSE’s in Fine Art, Art and Design, and Photography. That sort of put some demons to rest. I also had many happy holidays in France and could get around the language comfortably…without a piece of paper to tell me that.

And, only in the last decade have I discovered that I have a learning style and preference which is predominantly visual and kinaesthetic. In the 21st century, that style of learning is catered for. In the 20th century, it wasn’t. I don’t want children of this generation to have the experiences that I had. I want them to have opportunities to show their learning in different ways, beyond the test, outside of just memorising facts.

One final irony is that the book I studied for “A” level English was “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens. I see so many similarities between Mr Gradgrind and Mr Gove that I could cry. I always wanted to be Sissy Jupe so maybe that time has come. I need to keep challenging Mr G!

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Mr Gradgrind (Mister Gove?)
Hard Times. Charles Dickens.



4270 days ago

Must say I found this very moving. Good on you for coming through it all. Hope Govey listens.


4248 days ago

I didnt do well at school either and had to go to college to catch up as i needed the quals. Well we don’t all learn the same way and at the same rate. Do we?


4218 days ago

Are yu going to write a new blog piece soon.

A teacher

3918 days ago

Reading this and then reading today’s news about the new exams makes me fear for the people like you, who have it all but will have no way to show it in the new draconian exam system. It’s a serious disadvantage for some- or should that be many?

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