Why GCSEs have had their day

John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, is reported in today’s Daily Telegraph to be critical of GCSEs. Young people are, he says, being “failed by the system”, as growing numbers do not develop a fundamental grasp of the 3 Rs, and are leaving school unable to function effectively in the workplace. While there are many reasons why so many teenagers are not ‘work-ready’ – not the least of which is their pre-school experience and family support, which successive studies have shown to have a central importance in their subsequent educational attainment – it is also clear that our outdated examinations system shackles young people, stifles their creativity, and attempts to corral them and confine their learning to that – and only that – which can be tested. I spoke out about this in December 2010; former Education Secretary Estelle Morris said the same in January 2011. The GCSE system is, quite simply, no longer working.

Our children are over-tested. By the time teenagers leave school they will have spent literally months of their life either explicitly preparing for or taking national public examinations. There is no time for our young people to breathe. It is no wonder that teenage anxiety is on the rise. For many, the pressure starts to build in their early secondary school years, when they see the school completely physically reorganised for examinations twice a year, and when well-meaning teachers start to talk about GCSEs, preparing their charges for the onslaught of pressure that will come soon. In practice, GCSE courses usually start; many examinations and controlled assessments take place in Year 10; Year 11 is a year almost entirely dominated by examinations; and the pattern continues into Sixth Form. As the school leaving age rises to 18, there is simply no need for this deluge of examinations, all of which take valuable, precious time away from genuine learning, and the space to develop curiosity, creativity and critical thinking.

One size does not fit all. GCSE was intended to ensure equality of access to all, with grades running from A (now A*) to G. In practice, no-one pays any attention at all to grades below a C, with the result that (so as not to face an embarrassing situation where half the country repeatedly fails a public exam) the bar needed to reach to gain a C has progressively dropped over the years. Grade inflation is a recognised fact – Glenys Stacey, Chief Executive of Ofqual, admitted as such earlier this month. The annual rise in GCSE grades has become increasingly hard to equate to a gradual decline of the UK’s position in the international PISA education rankings. Around 40% of teenagers do not meet the Government’s requirement for 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths, a statistic hidden for years by the shameful practice of entering pupils for soft – and, quite frankly, practically useless – GCSE equivalent examinations, simply to maintain school standings in league tables.

We are educating for the 21st century, not the 19th. The system was to blame for the obfuscating tactics used by schools – the incentives were there for schools to meet target numbers, and not therefore to think creatively about the people coming through the doors. Our education system was set up in an industrial age, to prepare our young people for uniformity; today, we should be preparing our young people to be individually responsible citizens of the world, able to ride the crest of the information age. They will each bring something individual to the table, but we need to help them find their own individuality. When children come to school, we should be spending much more time assessing their own particular needs and planning programmes for them which stretch and challenge them to be extraordinary, as well as to have basic skills for life. We need to free ourselves of the industrial conveyer belt of age-related schooling, where children are pushed through schemes of work at uniform speeds. We need to talk about work and life from an early age, and excite our young people about their futures. They need to learn, retain, reproduce and use information, as exams require … but they – and we – need to remove the expectation that exams are the goal, rather than a step, a check, on the way to a goal.

Across the country, thousands of teenagers are sitting exams this week. I take my hat off to them – they have worked hard and are (for the most part) obediently doing what their country is asking them to do. We are the ones who have got it wrong. When are we going to put it right?


Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.