GCSE exams have had a hard time recently, with some leading head teachers regretting their baleful effect on the lives of Britain’s teenagers. They are, one said, symptoms of a “ritualised and mechanical” exam process, more suited to the “Victorian system”. Other heads regularly lament their emphasis on spoon-feeding and hoop-jumping. These deficiencies are significant – but not a reason to abandon GCSEs altogether.
Most decent folk tend to nod sagely when anyone says that the UK’s children are over-tested, and to agree with anyone who regrets the lack of creativity in our classrooms. People from the world of the arts are especially vocal about the need to teach more imaginatively, often knowing nothing at all about what actually occurs in thousands of fantastic lessons in all sorts of schools, every day. They can never see that the best teachers could make even learning the periodic table an act of sublime creativity.
Whenever I ask pupils to describe what makes a great teacher the answers are always the same – being kind, being fun, knowing their subject, loving their subject, and making everyone in the class feel safe and valued. Whether or not they are being taught for a public exam is neither here nor there.
In any case, why should it be that GCSE, or A level, or the IB, destroy creativity simply by virtue of being exams? Surely, all those of us who have enjoyed teaching public exam classes know that once we have dealt with the admittedly tedious criteria of poorly written exam syllabuses, often in a few pithy and rather cynical lessons, we can get on with teaching the subject we love? Of course, we need to remind our pupils of the assessment criteria, and the oddities of the mark scheme, but for me this is a small price to pay for something that exams really do create and which those of us within the profession can all too easily under-estimate: motivation.
Personally, I liked the old-style linear A levels, and am hopeful the next government, whoever they are, will endorse them, consigning modules to the dustbin of history. But many heads initially reacted nervously to the loss of lower sixth summer modules: how will we get the lower sixth to do any work without them? In other words, they know very well that for all the bien-pensant pronouncements that educationists like to make, boys and even girls are easier to motivate when there is an accountable end in sight.
So, before we become too enthused at the idea of a non-examined sixteen year-old, shouldn’t we just remember what many English sixteen year-olds are really like? They are indeed wonderful young men and women – of course – world paragons, no doubt. But they are human too – and like all the rest of us, they tend to respond well to the challenge of a test that matters. Sometimes, the results are painfully revealing, dispiriting or even unjust – but overall, and of course with some well-publicised and often well-repaired exceptions, public exams in this country are remarkably fair. Across the hundreds of thousands assessed each year, very few candidates have genuine reason to feel badly-served by their results.
Public exams almost certainly improve the general standard of classroom discipline across the UK, and are a godsend to those parents who need the distant threat of poor results to encourage their children to commit to anything beyond their computer or iPhone. These may not be issues that affect the most prestigious schools in the world, but they certainly matter at all the others.
Now that we are at last achieving a balance in our public exams between rigour, fairness, and year-on-year comparability, it would be a tragedy if well-meant counsels of perfection were to lead us away from the narrow path of educational redemption that we have taken so long to find. Exams, including GCSEs, are crucial signposts along that path. They are not all that matters – of course. But what good teacher or parent would ever suggest they were?
If you consider any developed or developing country whose public exams are mired in corruption, treated with disdain, or simply non-existent, you can be sure it is no brave new world of artistic freedom and integrity, but a failing society which has contempt for the ambition and desires of its own young people.
Only six years ago, some of the UK’s leading universities were closing down chemistry and engineering departments. Now, they are opening them again. At last, they can see a clear growth in the number of children from state schools going on to study maths and science. And why is that? Because the government has incentivised schools to raise their standards in science, maths and other vital subjects by compelling them to highlight these subjects in GCSE league tables. In this way, these unloved and perhaps unlovable exams are shaping the future of this country more benignly than we realise.
GCSEs can always be improved, but the fact they exist is the mark of a mature, aspirational and fair-minded society.
Read the blog post © Sunday Times.