Does education engage students, and how can it?


Our modern-day education in European and Western countries tend to include 'core subjects' - subjects that are  fundamental for our future life and mental development. In the UK, these 'core subjects' are: Mathematics, English Literature, English Language, and Science (whether it be for two or three GCSE qualifications). I did not end up doing my GCSE examinations due to COVID-19, but I knew that I was far from engaged in any of these subjects, albeit I know of others who did. While I worked hard for them, I just did not enjoy them. There were other subjects I did immensely enjoy, but they were not any of these core subjects. I will be focusing on England's education system in this blog, as it is from my perspective.

I believe the purpose of education should not only be for people to mentally develop, but also to be inspired and form their own dreams and aspirations, in terms of how they wish to shape their future. As UNICEF rightfully states, "More children and adolescents today are enrolled in pre-primary, primary and secondary education than ever before. Yet, for many of them, schooling does not lead to learning." Just because I passed my Mathematics, English (x2) and Science (x2) GCSEs, it does not mean I retain that 'core' knowledge I learnt for a handful of examinations - I hardly remember anything. 

To get behind the psychological aspect of this, it has been proven by researchers and scientists that you remember and learn more when you are happy/enjoying the class more. Dopamine and serotonin are chemicals that are released when you feel emotional or happy, and both these make your brain retain more events occurring in your memory. UNICEF firmly states that, 'Every child has the right to learn' but if this learning is not valuable, what is the worth of education? Disengagement leads to little to no retention of fundamental knowledge, so how do we make education engaging? This judgment of mine, that people are becoming more and more disengaged with education specifically at GCSE level (which is up to the point an individual must stay in school before they can go to college, sixth form, apprenticeship etc.) is not just a judgment - it is a fact. The National Education Union published an article in August 2019 about how 'Reformed GCSEs are damaging the mental health of young people, and failing to accurately reflect their abilities'. From my own personal experience of GCSEs, albeit I cannot reference from the actual examinations as I did not take them, I know that practically all my year faced some wrenches in their mental and physical wellbeing, due to stress of examinations up until March (when school closed). This stress from the examinations came from both the school, others in the school, and parents/family; though I do have to say the school did heavily sympathise with us and were brilliant with supporting us to the optimum extent they could. My parents were actually the opposite of pressuring and were extremely relaxed by telling me the grades were determined by my efforts, which they were. They understood the difficulty of these exams, which I am eternally grateful for, as a large some of my friends' parents were the complete opposite! Specifically, one of my friends' parents would consider her a failure if she did not achieve the grades she was predicted. Surely this is not the way to motivate those in education! 

Regardless of all the ways an individual can react to examinations, specifically GCSEs, I strongly believe we should be questioning the entire examination process, especially after the pandemic chaos. My year was lucky enough to go through the examination chaos of U-turn after U-turn in relation to how we were being graded with no exams! Additionally, the reformed grading system should be heavily questioned in my opinion. How is it that these examinations (GCSEs and A-Levels) are to determine our ultimate higher education/careers, yet the National Education Union reports that, '54% believe that students’ ability is less accurately recorded by GCSEs than before (the reformed grading system and examinations)'. I strongly approve of this statement, especially with my history GCSE. I am currently studying history A-Level, and the GCSE was one of my top achieving subjects in my results, so I understandably spent the most time revising for it. However, the content we had to consider in two years was impossible! The year before us did not even finish their course in time, and they were ahead of other schools I am aware of. Not only is the content mass ridiculous, but just over half of the content we are required to know is actually in the examination paper. Yet, in some of my work I did throughout the first two years, I achieved full marks, but when the mock paper came I freaked out and got around 70%. As the National Education Union describes from one of the teachers, they say “More content heavy, too much to cram in. Not relevant to their concerns, not practical.” Not only is mental health a huge issue leading up to the exams, but in the actual examination too. I fully recognise we are constantly going to be challenged and under pressure throughout our lives, but can two years worth of work for one subject really be accurately depicted and graded in a three hour exam? I was lucky enough in my school to do photography GCSE (another of my A-Levels), and the entire grade was coursework. I got a 9 and I was rightfully extremely proud of this, as not only is it the highest grade at GCSE, but photography has one of the highest grade boundaries out of all subjects. Personally, I believe this is because people are the most relaxed in this subject, and it is more of an accurate reflection of their work if it is all coursework, meaning overall, more students achieve better grades. Before the reforms, the ‘Legacy GCSEs’ consisted of much more than just the examinations; this included many more controlled assessments and coursework, but now, ‘many subjects (have) become assessed solely by exams taken at the end of the course.’.

Finland is largely recognised to have one of the world’s best education systems in the world, and if we compare their education system with the UK’s it is shocking. There are no standardised tests at all. School starts at age 7, and school is compulsory up until the age of 16, unlike the UK where it is compulsory until 18. The starting times are shorter, and they end earlier too. The overall periods are longer, but their ‘holistic’ learning means longer periods and breaks are fundamental to let information sink into students’ memories. They have the least amount of homework in the world, and their relationships with their teachers are constantly prioritised, as they stay with the same teacher for 6 years as their tutor. There is much less of a pressure to attend universities, which many Finnish schools offering many courses post-16 education. All of these factors entirely contradict the English system, yet the Finnish system is working better. It goes to show even exams are not needed, and their ‘holistic’ learning works in terms of active engagement and retaining ‘common-sense practices’ that are taught. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) PISA report shows how sampled countries are performing in Maths, Reading, and Science (the ‘core subjects’). Not only is Finland 5th out of the 65 countries, but England is slipping further down the chart. The PISA report tests the average reading scores for the ‘core subjects’, and although the results of the UK may be better than other countries, it does not factor in mental health and I am only talking about the English system, whereas the UK also includes: Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

All in all, I fully recognise that no education system can be perfect, but there are so many flaws not only with the education system in England, but the way it is being handled in the pandemic. I don’t know how anybody else feels who has gone through the exam chaos back in August, but from then up to now, I feel like the doctor’s mandate given to the Government is being neglected, especially in terms of education and how examinations are being awarded. I believe this outcry of disbelief from across the nation is a reflection of how students feel towards the reformed GCSEs and A-Levels. As some of the teacher critics said to the National Education Union, “Students are engaging with purely exam aspects of subject, i.e. how to answer an exam question, rather than developing a passion for the subject.”. “It is just focused on memorisation rather than engagement and application. There's no joy in learning anymore”. How dull does this sound? Education is a right granted for a child not only to keep them safe, but to aid them as they go into the world as an adult. As UNICEF says, it is to prepare, ‘children and adolescents for life, work and active citizenship.’ Without retaining this key information, the whole education system becomes seemingly worthless, invaluable, and a waste of an education. Disengagement can be addressed, and has been effectively in Finland. What can we do to engage students more? Look up to Finland.…………

"More children and adolescents today are enrolled in pre-primary, primary and secondary education than ever before. Yet, for many of them, schooling does not lead to learning". - UNICEF
"Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin. These are chemicals that not only make us feel good. They also improve our memory and ability to learn." -
"73% of respondents believe that student mental health has worsened since the introduction of reformed GCSEs;" - The National Education Union
"61% have seen a worsening of student engagement in education as a result of the reforms." -The National Education Union
“Real winners do not compete.” - Samuli Paronen
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland