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Sunday, Sept. 7, 2003

Exams fail to rock the boat


LONDON -- Summer is examination season in Britain with results posted in mid-August. These are important for young people as entry to university, especially a more prestigious one, depends on the results they achieve.

This year the proportion of young people achieving high grades has risen once again. This has inevitably raised the question of whether standards of setting and marking have declined or, as many teachers and government ministers argue, the high standards are the result of improvements in teaching.

It has also been suggested that higher grades have been achieved by students taking allegedly easier subjects such as psychology and media studies. A basic problem with the English examination system is that pupils specialize too early and do not have to cover an adequate range of subjects. There is now pressure on British schools to adopt a system similar to that of the international baccalaureate prevailing in France and other continental countries.

English universities face increased competition for entry and are in a dilemma over allocating places. Oxford and Cambridge universities have been accused of favoring pupils from private schools and, by educated parents, of discriminating for political reasons against students from more affluent backgrounds.

Universities that in many cases are in dire financial straits receive funds in accordance with complicated formulas, but much depends on the numbers of students admitted. Therefore, the number of odd combinations of courses qualifying for a degree has increased. Some courses sound distinctly bizarre, and lesser well-known institutions are being accused of awarding "Mickey Mouse" degrees of little or no worth. But if they don't do so, they could go bankrupt.

Moreover, the government, without properly thinking through the purposes of higher education, has set a target of getting 50 percent of young people into university. The main emphasis has been placed on improved vocational training, but this might be achieved through better apprenticeship schemes.

I'm glad that I no longer have to take anymore examinations and am not seeking a university place in Britain. We have heard much about Japan's "examination hell" and the fierce competition to get into the best universities, but we are in danger of falling into a similar situation here. When I look at modern examination papers, I realize that without a great deal of revision and study, I would certainly fail. Even with special tuition I might not succeed.

I sympathize with those who do not get the grades they need. These young people must not see themselves as failures. They need to be encouraged and reminded that success in later life is unlikely to depend on their examination results, although it may initially affect the salaries they can command on graduation.

There needs to be more emphasis on motivation and determination and less on specific marks. We also need to recognize that education is for life and not just a means to a good job.

When the British minister for education and science asked what is the use of studying medieval history, he revealed the extent to which he has failed to understand the purposes of university education. It would have been better if he had asked what is the value of a university degree if young people emerging from university cannot write clear and rational English. We all need to be articulate (preferably in more than one language) orally and on paper.

It seems clear that the Japanese education and examination system also require further rethinking. The politicians blame teachers while teachers blame interference and prescription by the education ministry for system weaknesses.

Some older people put the troubles in Japanese education down to the fact that Japanese young people do not face the tough regime they faced when Japan was not so prosperous. Members of the younger generation for their part accuse their seniors of trying to train them for situations that no longer exist.

Japanese youth certainly need to be encouraged to show more initiative and to question authority. I have just been reading the English version of the book "Japanese National Railways: Its Breakup and Privatization" (published by Global Oriental, 2003) by Yoshiyuki Kasai, the president of Japan Central Railway Co. It is a depressing story of intrigue and bureaucratic mishandling that could have made Japanese National Railways a continued burden on the Japanese taxpayer.

One thing is clear from this book -- namely, that the Japanese overemphasis on "not rocking the boat" is a major stumbling block to reform. It was the courage of men like Kasai in standing up to authority and risking their careers that saved the situation. "Safety first" is no doubt the right slogan for the fire brigade, but not for private or public enterprise.

The Japanese education needs a few more iconoclasts willing to question the received wisdom and let more free enterprise into schools and universities. Examinations need to be seen as mere tools to help in selecting those who can best benefit from a university education. They are blunt instruments and are in no way infallible, especially where they consist of multiple choice (or, as some say, multiple-guess) questions.

On looking some years ago at one English-language paper for Japanese university entrants, I decided that there were two possible answers to one question, but I am sure that the persons who set up the paper thought that there was only one right answer and might have failed me.

It is wrong to equate examinations with education and to argue that someone who passes all his examinations is an educated person. After swotting to pass an examination, most of us quickly, and probably wisely, forget most of the facts that we learned to pass it.

In life it is not so much what you know as how you use your knowledge and where you look for the information you need. More emphasis surely needs to be placed in education on how to investigate and analyze results and on how to apply the knowledge acquired. More important, though, is self-knowledge and the motivation that this can inspire.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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