John Betjeman at Somerset House in 1975. At Oxford, he just scraped through without failing. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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.