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THE MIDDLE CLASS EXAMINATIONS,
By C. T. HUDSON, M.A.,
T is at all times an unpleasant task to suggest difficulties in the
practical working of a scheme, the aim of which is admitted on all hands to be good, and of which the methods for obtaining the end proposed have also met with apparently a very wide, if not universal, approbation: and the difficulty of the matter is by no means lessened when the objector to the plan is one whose education and profession
are such as lead his readers to suppose that he would naturally take the very opposite view of the subject; that he would warmly commend that which he only faintly praises, and that he would make light of those difficulties on which he seems inclined to lay such stress.
That a tradesman should attach but little importance to classical studies, but be anxious to have his son made a good penman and a quick reckoner, is what might be expected, and seems reasonable enough; that one engaged in any active out-of-door employment should think more highly of bodily health than mental power, is not to be wondered at;- but that a scholar, who has been trained by University Examinations, should deprecate an extension of the system by which he has benefited,—that one who owes his position in life, in a great degree, to the existence of impartial methods of testing scholarship, should doubt the expediency of using these tests more widely,—and, to crown all, that a Schoolmaster should think that his pupils may be too highly educated, and should object to a plan for stimulating himself and them to greater exertions, --seems, I must confess, at first sight, so improbable, that it was with no little hesitation that I determined to express my opinion of the Middle Class Examinations; for I was well aware, that by so doing I should place myself in the position of one who, at the very outset, might be supposed to have undertaken to defend the unexpected opinions which he professes to hold, either from a wish to be singular, or from that most unfortunate propensity of many minds that are rather keen than practical, to start objections to every plan, to detect obstacles in every path, and to see only the difficulties in every course proposed.
I am encouraged, however, to state my reasons for questioning the expediency of these Examinations, as regards the effect they are likely to produce on our Grammar Schools, by the consideration that my objections are not merely theoretical, but are based on a close observation of the results which the scheme has already produced in my own school during the last six months; and by the strong conviction that similar results must have occurred in almost every Grammar School in the kingdom.
When it is remembered what a large proportion of the sons of the middle classes are educated in these schools, and that the mass of the pupils pass at once from school into active life, I think it will be admitted that an experiment which is likely to materially impair the efficiency of these establishments is a very serious matter; and that it is the duty of any head master who has arrived, as I have done, at the conclusion that the University Scheme will, in its present form, prove injurious to the greater number of scholars, to state plainly his reasons for entertaining that opinion.
The Midille Class Examinations may, I think, be fairly considered as founded with a view of increasing the efficiency of school education throughout the kingdom, by stimulating both master and scholars; holding out to the former the inducement of' widely circulated lists of the successful candidates arranged in order of merit, and with the names of their respective schools attached, -and to the latter certificates of proficiency, places in the class lists, and, in some instances, a University Degree.
It is expected, and I think reasonably enough, that such inducements will prolong the usual school course of a great many pupils; and that in. stead of the boys being removed from school (as is frequently the case) before they are sixteen, their parents will be tempted by the hope of their obtaining the A.A. degree, to allow them to remain a year or two longer.
That this result is a most desirable one every one must admit, -I only question whether by the University Scheme, as it now stands, it is not attempted to be purchased by the sacrifice of that which is of still greater consequence-namely, the general efficiency of the whole school.
The mere fact of one school being thus publicly pitted against another is quite sufficient to insure the most eager rivalry among both teachers and pupils. Every place in each class will be most keenly watched and noted, and it is more than probable that every successful school will anxiously display the honors gained at the ensuing examination. That all tl'e masters and some of the scholars will be thus excited to great exertion, I have not the least doubt: but I think this scheme tends to increase an evil which always exists in every school, and which it must be the coastant endeavour of every honest head master to check in himself as well as in othersnamely, to neglect the duller portion of every class for the sake of the moro able boys in it; to turn from the real hard work of his profession, the patient tending of slowly comprehending or sterile minds, to the comparatively easy and pleasant labor of helping those earlier developed or stronger intellects which are vigorous enough to thrive under alınost any treatment, and require rather to be checked than forced.
As regards the teachers, I think they will be placed by the scheme in an unfortunate position. For they will have the efficiency of their schools tested by an unfair test-unfair, because it is necessarily fallacious.
Every practical teacher knows that no class can be fairly judged by the proficiency of its head boys. The whole class, and more especially the latter end of it, ought to be carefully examined before any right decision as to the skill of the master can be arrived at. Almost any one who has knowledge can teach quick clever boys, but it is only the patient practiced skill of a good master that can successfully l'ouse the sluggish and indolent, and clear away the difficulties of the dull and backward : and this—the chief merit of the master, and that which distinguishes the teacher from the mere setter of tasks and hearer of lessons--this prime quality in the teacher, the Middle Class Examinations will scarcely reach at all.
It is true that it is highly probable that the clever pupils of a practiced painstaking schoolmaster, will excel the clever pupils of an unpracticed or indolent one: and so it might seein that as all schools are to be treated alike in having only their best scholars examined, the plan is on the whole a fair one, and that one year with another, the results of the Examinations will clearly point out the best schools.
To some extent, I admit that it may be so: but this does not meet my objection. I say that the test is unfair because it holds out a premium to all teachers, practiced and unpracticed alike, to neglect the bulk of their classes for the sake of pushing forward more quickly the few who are to be examined. I believe that the great majority of all schoolmasters are honest enough to do their duty to every boy committed 10 their charge: still it is neither wise nor fair to heighten a temptation to which they are already unavoidably exposed.
It may be answered that the parents of the duller scholars will soon detect this neglect, and that the fear of their doing so, and of their cousequently withdrawing their sons from our care, is quite a sufficient check to make instructors bestow equal pains on the dull and the clever, the industrious and the indolent. But every schoolmaster's experience will assure him that the ready test of the number of passed scholars in the Middle Class Examination Lists will be much more frequently resorted to when instituting comparisons between two schools, than the slow, laborious process, of fairly estimating a dull boy's progress under the master to whose care he has been confided.
To the parents of boys of moderate (or less than moderate) abilities—and these two classes constitute the greater portion of every school—the test offered by the University Examiners is comparatively worthless: it applies to a class of boys with whom their sons can never compete, and the published list of passed candidates on which they rely, may, for all they know to the contrary, be an index, not of the care bestowed by the masters on all their scholars, but even the exact measure of the neglect with which the greater pumber of pupils have been treated, and which their sons will certainly share.
I have, of course, throghout assumed that the standard of these Examinations will be sufficiently high to exclude all but the most able boys in every school, as otherwise the degree of A. A. would soon cease to be valued at all, and the whole scheme would be treated with contempt.
But even with the comparatively small number of boys, who it is probable will be candidates for these honors, the head master will meet with many serious difficulties in attempting to prepare them for the Examinations.
In many public schools, and in almost all grammar schools, public yearly or half-yearly examinations of the scholars are already held by gentlemen who have taken honors at the Universities; and since the University of Oxford proposes to hold Middle Class examinations every Midsummer, and that of Cambridge every Christmas, there will be each half-year an examination to which the higher pupils will be looking forward, and for which they will be preparing, in addition to the usual yearly or half-yearly one in their own school.
On the other hand, if the head master attempt to arrange the studies of bis upper classes to suit these examinations, he must, for the sake of a small number of pupils, entail on the parents of the rest the expense of a frequent change of books, and every schoolmaster knows how reluctantly such an expense would be borre; on the other, if he think so rapid a transition from one author to another neither desirable nor practicable, then the boys will have to prepare for two examinations taking place within a fortnight or so-or even it may be, as in the case of my own school, a few days of each other. It is perfectly clear, that this cannot but prove most injurious both to pupils and teachers.
Now it may be said that any well-taught boy can prepare himself for the Middle Class Examinations without much extra labor, and without infringing on his proper school work : but I do not think that this is the case.
Definite subjects are set in these Examinations, in which the candidates are to be examined, and of course every candidate will strive to make himself master of these particular books; and one of two things must unavoidably happen-he must either neglect his ordinary school work, or he must sacrifice those hours that ought to be given to healthful recreation and out of door exercise.
That large class of boys who love out-of-door sports and only tolerate books, will be quite uninfluenced by such inducements as the Universities are now holding out. It is to those who need no spur that the stimulus will be chiefly applied ; and I certainly fear for the result.
There is no consequence of the scheme which seems to me more fraught with evil than this. It is unwise, -and it is as cruel as it is unwise-to overstrain young minds, and cut off youthful scholars from an ample share of fresh air and vigorous exercise, light reading and amusement. By such means we may rear wonderful boys, but we shall utterly fail to make useful men.
The cricket ground, the fives court, the gymnasium, country walks, cheerful friends, pleasant stories, books of travel, -all play quite as important a part in a boy's education as classics and mathematics; and the harder a boy studies, the greater necd has he of such things.
It may perhaps be said that I overstate the case and exaggerate the probable evil which after all can only be a temporary one; but a boy may, very well bear the extra work entailed on him by one examination, and that if he does apply himself a little more closely than he ought to do to his studies during that time, it is after all, only for a short period and he will soon recover it.
But it must be remembered that the Examinations are to be prepared for quite six months before hand, and that when a boy bas obtained the lower certificate he will naturally wish to obtain the higher; and that if he fail once or twice he may still be tempted to try again, and that thus the mischief of having double lessons to learn, and extra studies to prepare, and consequently of taking less exercise and relaxation than he ought, may be prolonged throughout a year or two, until the harm that has been done becomes irremediable.
But, it may be argued, the boy's parents will take care that no such evil results arise, and should the boy be overtasking his strength they will interfere to prevent it. In some cases no doubt they will, but not by any means in all; besides this is not the point, --if the school be properly conducted, the boy has already enough to do, and cannot undertake any additional tasks without making use of time that ought to be devoted to his ordinary studies or recreations.
It perhaps will be said that I have not taken a fair view of the subject; that I have looked only at the evils which may arise from the scheme, and that I have not given due weight to its undeniable merits. For on the one hand there are many schools which can easily undertake, by increasing
their staff, to specially prepare the elder boys for the University Examinations; and on the other hand that the proposed degree of A.A. will be a great boon to the Middle Classes. That many a lad of seventeen will thus be enabled at a trilling expense to obtain a most valuable recognition of his talents and industry, for that an A.A. may always be fairly supposed to be one whom want of means, or some other equally forcible yet not discreditable cause, rather than lack of ability and perseverance, has prevented from becoming a B.A. or an M.A.
Now I admit that it is quite true, that in those schools which are fortunate enough to possess ample means, the difficulties which I have pointed out will be scarcely felt; a class can be formed of the pupils who intend to be candidates for the certificates and A.A. degrees, and the other scholars can continue their usual school duties. I apprehend, however, that there are not many grammar schools that can afford the expense additional master for the sake of so small a number of boys.
Again, it is equally clear that a certificate of scholarship, awarded by the Universities is a most valuable (and therefore most desirable) acquisition for all who have to earn their bread by their heads rather than by their hands; but if those who would otherwise be entitled to these distinctions are prevented from obtaining them by the unavoidable expenses of a University career, I might, I think, reply that it rather behoves the Universities to contrive some means for rendering the process of procuring a B.A. degree a much less expensive one than it is, than to attempt to remedy a palpable defect in their own system by injuring that of the public schools.
I earnestly hope that all those who are practically acquainted with the management of large public schools will give this matter their most serious consideration, to see if it is not possible to suggest some modification of the present plan for the Middle Class Examinations, which the Universities may be willing to adopt, and which, while it lessens (or perhaps removes altogether) the evil effects the scheme, at present, is likely to proluce, may not diminish its admitted merits.
If our Grammar Schools were generally conducted with larger funds and on a more liberal scale than they are at present, there would I think, be no very great difficulty in meeting the requirements of the University Examiners; for the provision of a larger staff of masters competent to do the ordinary work of the School, would enable the head master to give special attention to his elder boys with a view to these Examinations, without neglecting his usual superintendence of the whole school.
But if no general alteration can be made in this respect, I am inclined to believe that the head masters, finding they have to choose between their duty to the whole school, and this new call for special attention to their few most promising pupils, will decline to sacrifice the former to the latter —and that ultimately the preparation for the Examinations for A.A. degrees will fall into the hands of private tutors.
How far this is desirable or not I do not pretend to say; but I apprehend that this is by no means the result contemplated by the framers of the new scheme, or one that would realize the expectations, formed by parents in the middle classes, of the benefits which their sons are to derive from the proposeil Examinations : for private tuition is so expensive, that all the candidates who are to be prepared by means of it must be looked for, not