Kill GCSEs before they kill our children

The Telegraph, 17.08.15, 15-year-olds need three choices, not a defunct, one-size-fits-all exam that does nothing for anyone says HMC Honorary Member Martin Stephen, former High Master of St Paul’s School, London.

Thousands upon thousands of lives will be made this week, and many ruined, by GCSE results. This juggernaut rolls on year after year, carrying some people to glory and crushing others under its tracks. Will anyone have the guts to stop this out of control monster? It seems not, although even the man who introduced the qualification has finally woken up to the fact that it’s no good. Lord Baker, who was Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989, acknowledged that the exam is not for this era, and will eventually “wither on the vine”. “Over the next 10 years, it will disappear, because it won’t have much of a purpose,” he said.

Well, good. The GCSE has been reformed more times than the Church, but still fails on every front. It’s not challenging enough for the more able, too difficult for the less able and bores to snores the middle range. It offends everyone and pleases no one. It does nothing for those who wish to go on to a traditional academic university course, and nothing for those who want a vocational route. It doesn’t even supply future workers with the basic skills employers crave.

English Language? You must be joking. English Language GCSE is a watered-down examination in empathy, with no grammar content and no hint as to the structure of language. One of the most useful skills an adult can have, the skill of précis or boiling an argument in a piece of writing down to its core content, has long gone. As for sentence construction – don’t dare mention it, or you’ll be drummed out of school as a dinosaur. It’s not only English GCSE; all of them have completely lost touch with the skill set needed either in the work place, or at university, or both.

The problem is that we’ve allowed the C-grade at GCSE – an appallingly low standard – to become our national qualifying criterion for children at 15+. Get that C grade and a job becomes a possibility, as does a good Inspection Report for a school. The result? A massive shift in UK schools to teaching to the C; that grade helps explain why in 2010 only 7 per cent of UK students had high literacy skills as measured by the PISA league tables, as distinct from 13 per cent in Finland and 17 per cent in Shanghai, and 12 per cent in Maths, while Singapore managed 40 per cent and Shanghai 50 per cent.

Teaching to the C grade blacks out the screens of our young people more effectively than a failure in the national grid. It’s a switch-off, rendered even more so by the drive to make it more “relevant”. Relevant means you have to make the exam reflect the everyday lives of young people, so nuts to the idea that education takes you in to uncharted waters, shows you things you didn’t know and excites you through the unfamiliar. It’s like saying to a child, there’s all this wonderful food in the world, but we’re only going to let you eat a hamburger and fries.

The situation is not helped by the fact that we teach boys and girls the same way. The truth is, we have a gender crisis in UK education. A boy’s passion for learning is often ignited outside the classroom, and feeds in, whilst girls go in the opposite direction. If you want to light a fire in the head of many boys, get them firing on all four cylinders in sport, art, music or drama, and watch the brush fire spread into the classroom.

Boys like to push buttons, play around on their way to an answer. Pre-packaged, there-is-only-one-acceptable-answer-and-it’s-this-one, kills boys’ interest. So they switch off when it comes to GCSE .

There’s a simple answer, which has a feature GCSE so signally lacks: common sense. We need three choices for our 15-year-olds: a School Leaving Certificate, which means they don’t leave school until they’ve shown basic numeracy and literacy; a vocational suite of exams for those who want to get in to apprenticeships, which could contain things such as a qualification in electronics that teaches a would-be electrician what he or she most needs to know; and an academic suite of exams for those who want to go on to a traditional university course. One size doesn’t fit all where our young people are concerned, and the curse of GCSE is that the size on offer fits no one.

It’s time we rescued our children. Let’s kill GCSEs, not let them kill our young people.

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