Post 16 English and maths

Roger Titcombe's picture
I commend this paragraph by Peter Wilby in his 'First Thoughts' New Statesman column (6 - 12 September).

"Michael Gove's decision that pupils who miss grade C in GCSE English and maths should continue studying those subjects after 16 is only half right. Proficiency tests in English and maths - virtually essential to mere survival in the 21st century, never mind getting a job - should be like the driving test, which you can take until you pass. Yet the GCSE with its elaborate syllabuses and grading structures is not the right vehicle for them. Nor is it right to let pupils drop these subjects once they achieve minimum competence. Everybody should study maths and the native language to 18, as the rest of Europe requires."

Recent contributions to my 21 April thread (here) deal with this very issue.

Jonathan Youdan argues that the GCSE C grade at English and maths should indeed be treated like the driving test. I argue in my thread that this cannot be the case without doing serious damage to the C grade as a meaningful threshold to further and higher education. Peter Wilby is absolutely right. I go on to give reasons why criterion referenced tests are fine for the driving test, and some forms of vocational training, but no good at all for raising real educational standards.

This has caused me to reflect on the limits of repeated 'striving', which the coalition government so applauds, making its nasty and misleading comparison with 'skiving'.

I have a lifelong love of football, both playing and watching the professional game. In my teens, most schoolday evenings except in the darkest winter months, were spent in our local park with mates from our council estate, playing football until it was too dark to see the ball. Homework inevitably suffered. The problem was that my football skills are limited. We had a Sunday league team that was well supported and I occasionally got a game. Match of the Day was in its infancy and I recall a pundit's description of a particular player as, 'his pace is deceptive'. This was true of me. I was much slower than I looked.

Alas, as for football, so for guitar playing, singing and dancing, and a good many aspects of 1960s life.

The point is that all people reach ceilings in what they can achieve. Practice and training can raise this ceiling but only up to point. TV programmes like 'Masterchef', 'The X Factor', 'Britain's got talent' etc all imply that anybody can achieve anything if they try hard enough. This is a dangerous and life damaging lie. Obviously, when it comes to careers it is wise to concentrate on what you are good at. At school we should be teaching our children that there is no shame attached to the fact that there will always be some things (usually rather a lot) that other people can do better than you, no matter how hard you try.

Two principles follow from this. The first is that if GCSE grades are to retain any valid connection with ability and attainment, then there will always be large numbers of pupils that can't achieve any given grade no matter how hard they try. The second and most important is that this is not failure. It is disgraceful that our education system has degenerated to the level where large numbers of hard working pupils must be labelled as failures as the price for a competitive system.
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