GCSEs: the great debate

The Telegraph, 23.08.15, last week GCSEs underwent their annual performance review, with numerous critical voices clamouring to be heard. HMC member Katy Ricks, head of leading independent Sevenoaks School is quoted.

The week that GCSE results are released is, traditionally, the week that the qualification itself undergoes an annual performance review. This year numerous, critical voices are clamouring to be heard.

It began back in June, when the head of the CBI, John Cridland, described the GCSE as “out of date”, and implored the Government to review its effectiveness. In the past few days a triumvirate of educationalists has graded the GCSE as ''unclassified’’.

First, former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson said that an exam in Year 11 should focus on four core subjects; then Lord Baker, the man who as education secretary introduced the GCSE in 1988, announced that it was not fit for this era and would ''wither on the vine’’; on Tuesday in this newspaper Martin Stephen, former headmaster of St Paul’s Boys’ School, wrote that we should “kill GCSEs, not let them kill our young people”.

So what is the problem?

GCSE league tables foster relentless competition between schools. Schools select examination boards and versions of GCSEs with the sole aim of boosting their results. And costs are high: a typical state school can spend £500,000 on GCSE entries, with pupils routinely taking 10 or more. They are too often “spoon-fed” information to achieve satisfactory grades, so they are ill prepared for independent learning at A-level. Little practical or vocational knowledge is imparted.

Educationist Dr Debra Kidd observed her 16-year-old son emptying his books into a recycling bin after taking his GCSEs: “For him,” she wrote in the TES last week, “the point of school was to pass the tests. He had no respect for the knowledge he had gained. He literally dumped it in the bin.”

Carl Hendrick, head of research at Wellington College, says the “product-over-process approach [of GCSEs] is a poor preparation for sixth form.”

In defence of the GCSE …

Variety is its best feature. That students can study across a wide range of subjects enables them to discover what they are interested in and where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

“GCSEs work because students study core subjects and then choose others that interest them and are suitable for their particular strengths,” education consultant and former teacher Helen Rees-Bidder says.

The GCSE course is also going through change: exams have become linear, rather than modular, and, from September, will incorporate a new grading system, changing from the A*-U categories to 1-9 (9 equates to a good A*). The first results will be collected in August 2017.

What are the alternatives?

The International Baccalaureate (IB), renowned for its A-level Replacement Diploma, also runs an 11-16 curriculum called the Middle Years Programme (MYP). Currently in place at 13 schools in the UK, it teaches eight or more subject groups, and incorporates extended projects. This is a genuine alternative to GCSEs, as the IB is to A-levels, but suffers as the IB does from a lack of schools offering it.

Charlotte Avery, headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridge, supports this option. “If you trusted teachers to set and mark internal examinations, those results could then be used by higher education, apprenticeship providers and employers in advance of A-levels,” she says.

At Sevenoaks School in Kent, Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSC) have been introduced in English literature, art and art history, drama, music and music history, classical civilisations and two courses in technology: robotics and visual communication.

“These were developed on the basis that the curriculum was dull, outdated and not stimulating enough for our children,” headmistress Katy Ricks says. “Our courses aim to inspire, challenge and satisfy intellectual curiosity. We want to kindle learning that outlives exam results.” The SSCs are recognised by Ucas as a Year 11 qualification.

Sir Mike Tomlinson says that the system should focus only on English, maths, a science and IT; Martin Stephen advocates the introduction of three choices of examination at 15, comprising a School Leaving Certificate to assess basic numeracy and literacy, a set of vocational exams for those headed for apprenticeships, and an academic suite for those who wish to go to university.

Lord Baker believes that GCSEs will be replaced within a decade, and that more teenagers should be able to pursue practical, vocational qualifications, for instance at the Career Colleges that he helped to establish in 2013.

What does this mean for my child?

The GCSE is not dead yet. As one teacher who has taught the syllabus for many years puts it: “Despite its flaws, it’s the best system we’ve got.”

The Department for Education claims that there is no need for drastic change, as the system is evolving. “We have radically overhauled GCSEs to ensure each one plays a valuable role as part of a broad and balanced curriculum that equips young people with the skills and knowledge they need to realise their potential,” a spokesman says.

So for those about to embark on GCSE courses, good luck. For those who have just received their results, congratulations.

Or, good luck with the retakes …

Read the full article © The Telegraph