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DR MAX PEMBERTON: Only the smugly rich can afford to pretend exams don’t matter

By on August 28, 2022 0

Few people like exams. Over the years I’ve sat down dozens of things and believe me I’ve hated them all. So I can imagine there were cheers at Tony Blair’s suggestion last week that GCSEs and A-levels should be scrapped and replaced by continuous assessment.

That sounds a bit rich coming from Sir Tony, who went to private school and certainly didn’t seem to mind sending his children to prestigious schools where the importance of exams was stressed.

But that’s the problem with chatter classes; these kind of trendy ideas are always good for other people’s children, but not for theirs.

Besides, it’s fine to plead for the abolition of exams when you come from an eminently wealthy and well-connected family.

Tony Blair suggested last week that GCSEs and A-levels be scrapped and replaced by continuous assessment

Unlike Sir Tony’s children, I didn’t have a father who was a multi-millionaire former Prime Minister. Mine was dairy. The exams were a gateway for me to change my social situation.

Sir Tony’s proposal also flies in the face of everything we know about the benefits of testing from a neurological perspective.

Yes, they are tiring. But we know that material learned for exams sticks much better in the mind than when it is continually assessed.

We have to memorize things. As Nick Gibb, MP, former minister for school standards, explained: “Without stored knowledge, we are unable to carry out higher level intellectual activities such as critical thinking or complex calculations because working memory is limited. within its capacity and must be able to automatically build on the knowledge acquired over the years.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says material learned for exams sticks in the mind much better than when continuously assessed

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says material learned for exams sticks in the mind much better than when continuously assessed

I understand why students don’t like exams. The tedious hours of stuffing facts in your head, practice papers, post-it notes strewn about your bedroom followed by the dreaded day itself. The last-minute rush to the bathroom, the nervous wait for pens and pencils, the invigilator staring at you as you watch the clock tick to the time the exam is due to start. “Please hand in your exam papers and begin.” Ugh! It’s the stuff of nightmares.

I am currently pursuing a degree in geriatric medicine, which means I have been reviewing and taking exams for over 30 years.

But, despite decades of my life spent with them, looking back, I’m glad I took them. The exams instilled in me a discipline and academic rigor that I simply would not have possessed had I been assessed as I went.

The other day, I diagnosed someone with a life-threatening heart condition caused by a drug he had been prescribed. My cardiology exam was 20 years ago and much of what I learned has long since been forgotten. But dedicating so much memory gave me a good solid foundation and I retained a lot of important information. Thanks to that boring old exam, I saved someone’s life.

There’s no way on earth that I would have bothered to learn everything if I hadn’t had the prospect of an exam looming over me all those years ago, and those hours that I I spent reviewing paying again and again when I see patients.

There’s nothing like a big exam to focus on. Yes, they are hard and boring. But in addition to the knowledge you memorize, they also hone other invaluable skills – attention, focus, and engagement.

We all know that, really. Every time I fly, go to see a doctor, or talk to a lawyer, I’m glad they had tests. It would be perverse to pretend otherwise.

Yet the liberal elite would have us pretend that exams don’t matter. Crush them. Everyone should have prizes.

Along the same lines, it has become fashionable to reassure children that their grades don’t matter.

Of course, some have managed to get by despite catastrophic marks. But they are in a tiny minority.

For the vast majority of children from poorer families, good grades are a passport out of their situation. These are social mobility in action. But again, it’s old-fashioned to say it.

Is that a surprise though? If your career path is to be facilitated by a few phone calls to the right people to get you work experience and then a job, then no, it doesn’t matter what grades you get.

No one’s father’s friend ever asked to see a GCSE certificate before setting up a work placement. But if your only way to get ahead in life is to be smart and work hard, then these slips of paper can be the difference between climbing the ladder and staying put.

The left-liberal view that they mean nothing does a huge disservice to those who need a boost in life the most.

The school run is vital for dads

Prince William has to race to school when his family moves to Windsor.  He is pictured here with his three children: George, Charlotte and Louis

Prince William has to race to school when his family moves to Windsor. He is pictured here with his three children: George, Charlotte and Louis

Prince William has to race to school when his family moves to Windsor. He is said to be determined to be there for his three children as they grow up. What a wonderful example he sets. I was often struck by his commitment to fatherly duties – take, for example, the way he engaged with his children at various events over the summer, entertaining them when their attention wandered and gently scolding them when they misbehaved. For many children, their father is a distant figure – if he is involved in their life. The prince is the kind of role model young men need: someone who isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the mundane things, like taking the kids to school every morning.

A police officer called the bluff of eco-warriors who occupied tunnels near an oil refinery in Essex. They complained their lives were in danger when police reopened the road above, but Deputy Chief Constable Glen Pavelin replied that they were ‘welcome to come out any time’. Hooray for common sense!

  • The lockdown and working from home have fueled a rise in porn addiction, with the number of help-seekers doubling from 2019. This type of addiction is interesting because it’s not the same as a physical addiction , where we can provide substitutes (such as methadone in heroin addiction) to help gently wean the person off the substance in question. My concern with the “medicalization” of these types of behaviors, however, is that it removes any sense of agency and control from the user.

DR MAX PRESCRIBED…

DOWNTON SABBY

Dr Max Pemberton says Downton Shabby was one of his favorite summer reads because it's 'funny laugh out loud' but also a story of doing something unexpected and risky

Dr Max Pemberton says Downton Shabby was one of his favorite summer reads because it’s ‘funny laugh out loud’ but also a story of doing something unexpected and risky

It was one of my favorite summer reads – a true story of Hopwood DePree, a Hollywood producer, who decides to abandon Tinseltown and move to the UK to renovate his ancestral home; a ruined 60 room Grade II* listed mansion near Rochdale. It’s funny, but also a story of doing something unexpected and risky. It’s an uplifting lesson in the joy of throwing caution to the wind.