Examinations

EXAMINATIONS

The Universities' Local Examinations, and those of other public examining bodies, have effected a great change in the feeling of middle-class schools, both public and private, in this respect: it is possible for almost any boy or girl to get a distinction worth having, and enough care to make the effort to carry the rest along. Work is the order of the day: the desire of distinction, a strong spirit of emulation, stimulated by marks and prizes, do the work of government, and the teachers have little difficulty, except with the few rebellious spirits who decline to go the way of the others.

This looks so well on the face of it, that we ask, Is there nothing to set on the other side? But thus much, at least, must be allowed by both utilitarian and moralist––that the habit of work, the power of work, rapidity in work, the set of the will to a given task, are "the making" of man and woman; that the boy who has done the definite work necessary to pass a given examination is, other things being equal, worth twenty per cent more than he who has not been able to pull his forces together. But these "other things" must be looked into. Is the boy who prepares for a public examination––we are not speaking of prizes open only to a few, such as scholarships at the Universities, but of examinations where success is open to all who are up to a certain reasonable standard––is the boy who goes in for one of these in any respect at a disadvantage compared with him who does not?

Here comes in for consideration the question of "overpressure," a possibility––too serious to be passed over without investigation––which parents naturally dread more for their girls than their boys. In the first place, work, regular disciplinary exercise, is so entirely wholesome for the brain, that girls, even more than boys, should be the better for definite work with a given object. It cannot be too strongly put that, as a matter of health, growing girls cannot afford to be idle, mentally; it is just as pernicious that they should dawdle through their lessons as that they should lounge through the day. There is no more effectual check to the tendency to hysteria and other nervous maladies common to growing girls than the habit of steady brain-work. But then, it must be work under conditions: fit quantities at fit times, with abundant leisure for exercise and recreation.

Now, the question is, Is it possible to prepare for an examination, say, the Universities' Local Examination, Junior or Senior, under these conditions? For a girl of average intelligence, who has been fairly well taught up to her thirteenth year, it certainly is. It is not the steady work during the year that produces the symptoms of "brain-fag," but a few weeks of cram at the end, the struggle to go over the work of the year in a month or so, the excessive strain on the attention, the prolonged hours of study at the expense of play. This is, indeed, overpressure, and does harm. But it is unnecessary, because, as a matter of fact, it is useless; a name, or a date, a lucky shot or two, is all that comes of this senseless "grind." It is seldom that this kind of thing is done at the instance of teachers––the pupils invent the necessity for themselves and go to work blindly; and, therefore, parents can the more easily put it down, especially in day schools. It rests with them to say that their children shall go in for any examination, public or private, only on condition that little extra time be spent in study previous to the examination. Again, it is possible to reduce or increase the time appropriated to given subjects––language or science, say, according to the power of the pupil. And with these two precautions, there is no reason why the preparation for a public examination should do more than give the pupil a year's definite and wholesome work.

The next point to be considered is the quality of the work. There is no doubt that definite work, on a well-considered programme, with a given object in view, is a clear gain, leading to definiteness of purpose and concentration of effort and attention, the qualities that go to make a successful man. But what is to be said for the style of teaching, the method of study, encouraged by the system of school-work organised with a view to public examinations? and with what is it to be compared? And, in the first place, is it not assuming too much to suppose that these examinations do tell very greatly on the general work of middle class schools? The Times, some years ago, spoke within the mark in saying that the universities had entirely revolutionised the system of education in secondary schools by their "Local Examinations." It is not as if the regulations of the examining bodies affected only the few candidates; the whole of the first division of the school is worked upon the syllabus adopted; the second, the third, down to the lowest division, is worked towards that syllabus: that is, every pupil in the school gets the sort of teaching that is supposed to tell when his time comes to be examined; and so soon as the work of the school begins to take hold of the child, he is making efforts towards this grand result.

Nor did the Times say too much in praise of the impulse these examinations have given to secondary education, nor of the practical sterling value of the work obtained. It is a rare thing, now, to meet with a school of any standing which does not do thorough work, commonly tested by the fact that it sends in candidates for some examination. One hears of schools which obtain telling results by a system of cram, of no educative worth at all; but, as a whole, middle-class schools have reached a fair average level––few are much better or much worse than the rest. It used not to be so; a school was a place of real education or of miserable sham, according to the character of its head; but now, a scheme of work is prescribed; any man can see it carried out by assistants, if not by himself, and then his school is as good as another. In a word, the standing of a school no longer depends altogether upon force of character and organising power in its principal.

This levelling tendency of our school routine has its disadvantages; it is not easy to produce individuality in either school or pupil under the present conditions. Individuality, character, culture, public examinations––and a system of school-work based on such examinations––must necessarily strike at the head of these. For what is it possible to examine upon, when the same examination is held simultaneously all over the empire––what the pupil thinks, or what he knows, what he has seen set down in black and white? The latter, plainly, for it would be unfair to allow examiner or examinee any latitude of opinion in a matter that concerns so many. Therefore, facts, examinable matter, is the mental pabulum of the school life. If the master be given to discursive teaching, he pulls himself up, and sticks to facts; it is only upon matters of fact that it is possible to examine, and, therefore, it is upon his power of receiving, retaining, classifying, and reproducing facts that the pupil's success depends. There is no doubt that this fact-lore is an invaluable possession. But it is not culture; it does not, necessarily, produce a cultivated mind, the habits of reading and reflection:––

   "A primrose by the river's brim
   A yellow primrose is to him,
   And it is nothing more"––

he, being the boy brought up with a view to successful examinations, and who has not found for himself a way to get out of the groove of his work.

Again, the routine of school-work becomes, at the same time, so mechanical and so incessant, there is so much hurry to get over the ground, so little leisure, so little opportunity for the master to bring himself en rapport with his pupil, to feel, as it were, the moulding of the boy's character under his fingers, that there is no space for the more delicate moral training, the refining touch, which a man of superior parts should bestow upon his pupil. The work, the routine itself, affords bracing moral training. Diligence, exactness, persistence, steady concentrated effort, are not to be despised; but something more is wanted, not easy to define, to be got only in sympathetic intercourse with our betters, morally and mentally, and this something is being pushed out in the press of work.

What is to be said then? Give up examinations, and let teachers and taught dawdle on in the old vague way? By no means: too much would be lost. Let the children go to schools as they now are, but with draw them from examination? No; for the training which schools offer now all hinges more or less upon the examinations; and if you do not get that, you get nothing in its place. But the thing is, to took the matter in the face: take the good the schools provide, and be thankful; take count of what they do not provide, and see that any culture or moral training which the schools fail to offer is to be had in the home1


1There is no doubt a more excellent way; Lord Salborne found it out for the examination of naval cadets; and for many years the Parents' Union has practised a manner of education lending itself to examinations which test intelligence and not successful "cram." But this subject has been taken up fully in another volume of this Series.