The Correct Answer
While it is commendable that the Secretary of State has realised that there is a problem with GCSE it is a pity that his ideological compass has pointed him 180 degrees out of true and directed him to the wrong answer. His prescription of ever more layers of synthetic rigour leading to an increased likelihood of divisiveness is not simply incorrect but misses the point altogether.
Up to the turn of the last century a sixteen plus examination served some purpose when it marked the conclusion of full time education for a significant proportion of a year group. It gave young people, parents and employers an opportunity to get some kind of handle on an individual pupil’s overall abilities which would not be on offer again. Since that point we have increasingly moved towards a situation where the effective work or higher education entering age is eighteen. This may have happened more because of economic and demographic reasons than for any educational purpose but it is becoming a fact.
In this situation the sixteen plus examination is now a total waste of time, money and effort and a diversion from achieving the best outcomes for young people from their years in education and training. A major reason for scrapping the eleven plus examination was that it unfairly classified too many pupils as failures, a perception which blighted the remainder of their time at school – and beyond. At that early age you could not leave school and start on a different path, just as now a young person of sixteen cannot shake off the effects of an unsatisfactory GCSE performance and try their hand in the world outside. The unemployment figures show that this is even difficult at eighteen, whatever the level of paper qualifications.
The decision to scrap the end of Year 11 examinations, as already happens in other developed countries, is not a destructive act, rather it is liberating and positive. GCSE costs the system a great deal of money and even more in time, both of pupils and teachers. It distorts young people’s view of education into something too narrowly prescribed by smart technique and short cuts to answers. Wide ranging and imaginative study of a subject goes out of the window, which is demotivating for all involved.
The purpose of education is not to grade pupils like peas but to encourage them to learn and to be able to make use of their learning. Education and the world beyond may not be exactly the same thing but neither should there be a total disconnect between them. The set of grades thrown up by GCSE for a particular person is not an infallible guide to their future achievements. Anyone who has taught in Further Education has plenty of evidence of this fact. So, without the dead hand of any sixteen plus exam, we can consider the better uses that can be made of resources and time.
First of all, if only a fraction of the time spent on exam technique, revision and pre-testing could be used by staff to gain a better picture of their pupils’ aptitude and interests it would be invaluable. This is not to ask teachers to become careers officers but to develop strategies to give individual guidance on programmes of study and training 15-18, not overly defined by the parameters of the timetable and the requirements of exam boards. This process is vital if young people are going to be equipped at eighteen with both a purpose and the tools to carry it through. Experience shows that once they have an aim which means something to them they can jump learning hurdles which previously seemed insurmountable.
Secondly, without a curriculum constrained by its need to have outcomes which are always easily testable, the breadth and depth of education which everyone says that they want to see can more readily be achieved. Core skills, for example, can be absorbed and demonstrated in a wider set of contexts. Essential learning in the fields of speaking and listening for instance can be developed. Who knows, we might even produce a generation of politicians who understand the difference between merely listening and actually hearing what people have to say.
Finally, this will not only free pupils but also staff. Teachers need to respect pupils and value their subjects if they are to do their job properly. They must also have sufficient space between the guideposts of the curriculum to make their own contribution to what is taught and to devise imaginative and inspiring forms of learning experience. They need the opportunity to introduce books, topics, projects and experiments which broaden and illuminate learning. In this way there is a good chance that both pupil and teacher will find enjoyment in the learning process, a necessary pre-requisite for lasting success. It should of course be remembered that enjoyment can often be a very serious matter and not at all the same thing as fun.
These are a few of the positive uses that can be made of the freedom given by the demise of the GCSE. If pursued wisely they will ensure far better outcomes for the whole cohort at eighteen, to the benefit of young people, universities and employers and to the relief of parents. Doing away with testing and examinations altogether is of course as much of a Luddite act as it would be to operate without nationally agreed curriculum guidelines up to the age of fifteen. On the other hand, getting rid of a layer of examinations which now has no purpose is a sensible and constructive act. We adults should apologise to our children and grandchildren that it has taken us so long to see this particular light.