This is the age of educational anxiety

But good grades don’t always make great workers.

Education has never been so stressful. A-level results were published this past week, the culmination of years of collective anxiety by pupils, parents and teachers. Like Christmas, exam stress begins earlier every year. Once confined to the summer term, it now creeps into the whole academic year, not just as a result of coursework but because exam results have never been more crucial. As the universities minister, David Willetts, pointed out, too many employers don’t even consider candidates without a 2.1 degree or better. Attainment is increasingly portrayed as a ladder to the top in which one missed step dooms the whole ascent.
 
I am almost the only member of my family who is not a teacher. My parents were teachers, as were my grandmother and my uncle and aunt; both my grandfathers were stateschool head teachers. Perhaps by genetic predestination, I married a teacher. My family’s experience confirms the general trend: more exams, more anxiety about exams and deepening concern among parents that their children cannot afford to fall short, that opportunities narrow early and decisively.
 
It is easy to bemoan pushy parents, private tutors, overanxious pupils and teachers who teach to the test. We have all encountered parents who view their child’s education as a kind of reverse teleology, beginning with the “right” kind of top job, working backwards through elite university, through school, even into the nursery playground. I suspect that their neurosis often does more harm than good in the long term.
 
But their competitive angst is also understandable. The age of educational anxiety is the inevitable conclusion of two questionable (though rarely questioned) assumptions: first, that grades reflect merit, and second, that academic attainment is what makes people successful in the workplace.
 
Almost everyone in education today agrees that the never-ending steeplechase of examinations and assessment has become damagingly stressful. But that will never change; indeed, it will increase indefinitely, unless employers change the way they make appointments. The question “How do people get good jobs?” is the first domino. That causes a cascade of assumptions that ends in the parental conviction: “My child has to get these results.”
 
Much more revealing than this summer’s exam results was a telling confession by one of the world’s best-known employers. In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations at Google, gave a candid assessment of his firm’s track record at predicting who would turn out to be a good employee. “We did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock said. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”
 
Bock’s testimony is unusually valuable because Google collects and analyses a huge quantity of information from employees. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs [the American equivalent of degree classes] are worthless as criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all,” he said. “Your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed in college.”
 
Bock went further, arguing that there may be an inverse correlation between formal education and original thought. “I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are . . . conditioned to succeed in that environment . . . You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”
 
Everyone has heard the roll-call of big-name businessmen who failed in formal education: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. Google is trying to widen the net to catch some of that talent. “The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well,” Bock explained. “We have teams where 14 per cent never went to college.”
 
They would doubtless bridle at the idea of literature as “problem-solving” but Bock’s point applies to writers as well as entrepreneurs. Evelyn Waugh was awarded a Third at Oxford and didn’t even bother to collect it. Cyril Connolly was also placed in the third class. John Betjeman didn’t even do that well – he was given a “pass”, a meagre improvement on a straight fail.
 
But faith in exam results shows no sign of loosening its grip. That is partly because it suits the winners in today’s status quo. I’ve argued before that credentialism has turned full circle. Intended to be a progressive alternative to the old-boy network, credentialism now plays into the hands of people who have the energy and inside knowledge to navigate the system.
 
Given the lengths to which some parents will go in order to engineer superb grades for their children – private tutors, cramming, re-marks, resits – the correlation between exam results and ability is increasingly questionable. That is why we have all had the experience of meeting people with “good degrees” from “top universities” and wondering how it can have happened.
 
Credentialism is an easy position to defend, however. No one gets blamed for giving places at university to highly credentialled candidates who turn out to be spoon-fed. And those hiring at firms are unlikely to be blamed for appointing highly decorated graduates who turn out to be ineffectual employees. But setting out not to get blamed isn’t the same thing as making the best decision.
 
Each year’s set of results is greeted with a forensic analysis of standards, grades, places, rankings and prospects. If only we were equally rigorous about re-examining the dubious assumptions that underpin our obsession with academic attainment. 
John Betjeman at Somerset House in 1975. At Oxford, he just scraped through without failing. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Getty
Show Hide image

MPs should follow Emmanuel Macron's example and stand up to the far right

Where does a liberal centrist's victory fit into your narrative of inevitable decline? 

“Après le #Brexit, le printemps des peuples est inévitable !” wrote the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, days after Brexit. Well, the blossom is on the trees, and Le Pen is through to the second round of the French presidential elections, so presumably we’re bang in the middle of that inevitable “people’s spring”. 

After all, a referendum that left Britain’s metropolitan elite weeping into their EU flags was swiftly followed by the complete overturning of US political and ethical traditions. Donald Trump defied polling and won the Presidency, all the while proclaiming he was “Mr Brexit”.  

Then, in December, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum on constitutional changes and lost. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics read the runes. Ukip’s on and off leader Nigel Farage crowed of 2016: “First we had the Brexit deliverance, then the Trump triumph, then the Italian rebellion. Democracy and the rebirth of the nation state!”

As this illustrates, the far-right want you to believe all these results are linked, and that they represent a popular, democratic movement. In the UK at least, the liberal left has drunk the English champagne. Labour is agonising over how to reconnect with “traditional” voters Ukip is apparently so in touch with – which don’t seem to include ethnic minorities, young people and those living in cities. Being “tough on immigration” is the answer to modern woes, and globalisation is a dirty word that can only represent multinational interests and not, say, cheaper food on the table. 

There are debates to be had about globalisation, of course, and the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crash, and the fact wages haven’t risen, and public services have been cut, and that in some northern towns, people from different ethnic backgrounds live segregated lives. But if the first round of the French presidential election can do us one favour, it’s to dispense with the narrative that there is something inevitable about the end of liberalism. 

Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetically pro-EU social, economic and political liberal, led the way in the first round of the French presidential election. The polls put him on course to become President.

If he wins, perhaps it’s time to revisit the narrative of decline. To remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton, now written off, won the popular vote in the United States, and among growing demographics of voters too. That a far-right  Austrian presidential candidate was defeated in 2016. That as recently as March, the Dutch mainstream prevailed against the far-right original Trump, Geert Wilders, and that the left-green leader Jesse Klaver enjoyed a surge instead. And that, although it’s now commonplace to assume Canada is just “nicer” in electing a liberal, Justin Trudeau, his party actually overturned nearly a decade of tar sands Conservative rule. 

Should liberals start to join these dots, voters should have the right to ask why both Labour and the Conservatives have jumped on the populists' bandwagon so eagerly. Why, among previously economically liberal Conservatives, are Nicky Morgan, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry left as lone voices on the back benches. And why, in Labour, is patchy research linking depressed wages and immigration now exhalted as long-established fact? 

Liberalism may be out of fashion, but it’s not dead yet, as any of the Tory MPs in south-west marginal seats know too well. By the time Farage’s “independence day” on 24 June arrives, the narrative may have changed again. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496