GCSEs: The Perennial Problem

I’d like to start what is yet another exam-related post with a message: to all those collecting your GCSE results tomorrow, good luck. I sincerely hope that you all do well, but it’s also important to remember that there’s no need to worry even if things aren’t completely rosy. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need advice.

Many of you may have read two articles about GCSEs in this morning’s (Wednesday 19th August) Telegraph. It might not surprise you that I’m now going to say that I disagree with both of them, to varying degrees. The one which I’ll look at in greater detail is ‘Kill GCSEs before they kill our children’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/11807892/Kill-GCSEs-before-they-kill-our-children.html) written by Dr. George Martin Stephen, former headmaster of St. Paul’s School in London, and also of my old school. I have problems from the first sentence: he implies that many lives will be ruined by under-par results tomorrow. His argument boils down to the fact that in his view, the current format of GCSEs isn’t helpful either to those wanting to pursue vocational qualifications in the future, or to those wishing to attend university. There’s a big jump between something not being helpful and something ruining the life of a 16-year old.

I do accept the point that GCSEs aren’t really serving their purpose at the moment; I am of much the same opinion – see But What If I Fail? and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Exams? for my thoughts on this matter. I cannot, however, accept the solution Dr. Martin Stephen propounds to what seems like a perennial problem. He suggests three options for 15-year olds: a School Leaving Certificate which guarantees a basic level of literacy and numeracy, a series of vocational exams, and a parallel series of more rigorous academic qualifications. Whilst this might prepare young people in the UK for the future far better than the current system does, it presents problems of its own. The biggest issue I have is that it would essentially require a young person to choose the path of their career at the age of fourteen. If I had been in that situation, I’d either be sitting where I am with an offer to study Medicine (or no university offer at all), and I probably never would have thought to write a blog (so you wouldn’t actually be reading this).

The point that I am trying to make is that the age of fourteen is far too early a stage to be making choices that have such great repercussions. In fact, it could be argued that even under the current system, young people are making their choices far too early: the A-Level route restricts students to three or four subjects, making specialisation in a certain area a necessity at the age of seventeen. This provides a contrast with the USA, where both college programmes undergraduate degrees are fairly broad: most students there will study a major subject, a minor subject and then other components of a core curriculum that is compulsory for all students. In theory, an arts or humanities student could continue to study some basic science up to the end of their undergraduate degree. By the time I finish my undergraduate degree, I might not have studied any science for five years. In my opinion, students in the USA open themselves up to a far greater range of career choices at the end of their education due to this method than students in the UK do, and have far greater opportunity to change their mind about what they really want to do. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained in specialising at the early stage that Dr. Martin Stephen suggests.

On a more positive note, there are two points that he makes with which I do completely concur. A GCSE in English Language doesn’t really impart much of the basics of the English language these days, which is more than slightly problematic. Despite having been taught English for twelve years at school, I think I learnt more about the underlying grammar from surfing the internet and editing a newspaper; in fact, I understood virtually nothing about grammar until beginning to learn Latin at the age of thirteen, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect. A quick glance at a new specimen paper suggests that there is still some work to be done: the majority of the focus is on comprehension and analysing the way a writer creates a certain impression – important, but the latter seems more suited to a literature paper, although it is pleasing to see a précis exercise (summarising) included. I’m not suggesting that there should be an exercise on editing, but I do feel there is a need to test grammatical ability. I have seen (and experienced) many complaints about the standard of writing of young people these days, and this really should change.

The second point of agreement is that the ‘C’ grade at GCSE, the current minimum standard which students should be achieving, has become a target of sorts. It is regrettable that schools in the UK are increasingly becoming machines set up to meet government-defined targets, rather than local centres of education. There is a culture of ‘As long as you get a C, it’s fine’, which I think needs to be stamped out. It is almost as if the desire to achieve highly is being quashed.

I simply cannot agree that abolishing GCSEs in the way which Dr. Martin Stephen suggests is the solution though. Not only does it create the problem of specialisation at far too early a stage, but it is, in my view, also likely to lead to young people entering the world of work without basic knowledge in certain fields, which is certainly not something to be desired (see The Need for a Rounded Education). For now, GCSEs are being made more rigorous, coursework is being removed, and a new marking scale is being introduced in September. Further appraisal in a few years time will reveal the steps which need to be taken.

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