THE LEARNING GAME Jonathan Smith, Little Brown and Company, London

ISBN 0 316 85421 2

These days very few autobiographies leave you with a warm glow. This is an exception, standing out among the self-aggrandising apologias that typify the genre. Most of it, however, appealing though it is, does not come into the orbit of these pages. There is one chapter, though, that is extremely relevant. It is Chapter 30 Examinations (and the coursework conspiracy). At last, the conjecture that was made in Sorry, wrong number! is substantiated by an authoritative voice.

The argument favouring coursework over examinations was a spurious one. Examinations were claimed to be unfair and stressful. Now a short period of stress has been replaced by a non-ending one. Unspoken conspiracies are becoming increasingly common in this bureaucratised world – an example from Sorry is the citation conspiracy, in which authors do each other the kindness of citing each other’s work to provide a mutual gain in the citation statistics.

The impetus for the coursework conspiracy is laid out with great clarity in this book:

The pupil wants to gain a high mark and will do anything to get this mark. After all, if it is at GCSE level, these results will be the only ones on his UCAS form and may well decide the offers he is made by universities. He would be foolish not to work at it.

The caring parent wants his child to get a high mark and will help his child in any way possible, fair means or foul. Every parent wants the best for his child, never more so than in today’s world. Here is a chance to influence that future by influencing the course-work result.

The caring teacher, aware that his annual results are scrutinised and that these results may well affect his salary and/or promotion prospects, wants his pupil to get a high mark and will, if need be, rewrite or reshape or help in any way possible. Teachers rewriting course-work is on the increase. It might already even by a national scandal.

The caring head of department, aware that his annual results are being scrutinised and compared with other departments both inside and outside the school, wants pupils in his department to do well. These results may well affect his salary and/or promotion prospects.

The caring head of school, either aware or unaware of these practices, but in any event too busy or too shrewd to peer too closely, is only too pleased if his school does a little better each year in all subjects. After all, he has to speak about the results to the school and to the parents, and to the governors and, maybe, even to the press.

It is also, of course, in the interests of the examination board for everyone to do a little better because examination boards are touting for custom, competing with other boards for schools to join them, and schools shop around to look for easier boards. That’s only common sense. In making their offers to pupils, universities do not distinguish between one board and another.


So the results go on going up and up. Not too much, but just enough. This year’s results are the best ever. And the results prove that standards are going up. This years A-level results are the best ever. This is gratifying. And this good news is the cause of general satisfaction. Well done boys, and increasingly and in particular, well done girls.


What you measure is what you get (the second corollary to Brignell’s law of league tables). Similar phenomena occur no doubt in other countries; only the names of the examinations change.

For the purposes of general review it is exceedingly unfair to pick out this particular section. Get this book. It is a loving and lovable account of the life of a dedicated and compassionate professional, and one that I defy you not to enjoy.

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