‘Kill GCSEs? Be careful what you wish for’

The Telegraph, 21.08.15, GCSEs can always be improved, but the fact they exist is the mark of a mature, aspirational and fair-minded society, writes HMC member Andrew Halls, headmaster of leading independent King's College School, Wimbeldon.

This week, Martin Stephen, former high master of St Paul’s School, argued we should “kill GCSEs, not let them kill our young people.” The outgoing headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, has said they are symptoms of a “ritualised and mechanical” exam process, more suited to the “Victorian system”.

A former chief inspector of schools, Sir Mike Tomlinson, has also said that all GCSEs apart from four core subjects are a waste of time and should be scrapped. Even Lord Baker, who helped design them, has suggested they should "wither on the vine".

I don’t wish to seem impolite – but I think they are wrong. The damage that would be done to this country were GCSEs to be jettisoned would be bad enough, but the damage to our children even greater.

This week, we learned that English children are among the 'unhappiest in the world'. In a study by the Children’s Society, more than a third of children said they had been bullied, and over half felt they had been excluded or left out. English girls ranked second from bottom for confidence about their appearance. There is no reference to school work or exams.

An obsessive preoccupation with personal appearance, validated by countless online approvals, and a neurotic fear that everyone else is having a better time than they are, overwhelms far too many of our young people. A successful public exam at the age of 16 helps teenagers to get focused, and to see that society places a serious emphasis on the development of the mind.

Because most pupils realise they matter, GCSEs 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 mobile phone. A survey widely covered in the media earlier this year showed that 5-16 year-olds already spend an average of 6.5 hours a day in front of screens.

We need, more than ever, to offer a formal education that helps our children to see beyond their Instagram account.

The underachievement of boys in this country has been one of the curses of our time, and yet motivated boys are great fun to teach. So what is stopping them? A well-designed set of public exams in the middle of their teenage years can help them focus, and realise that what they are doing will lead them somewhere.

Until recently, GCSEs were diminished by grade inflation, modularity and poor syllabuses. The Gove reforms have changed this: fish husbandry, nail technology services and horse care were all validated as GCSEs before Gove put them out of their misery. The result? The number of pupils taking GCSEs in serious subjects rose by 72,000 in the year 2013 alone.

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?

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 and its teenagers 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.

No one looks forward to sitting an exam, but a public exam is part of a system that reminds children that there is something to achieve. The GCSE works as a qualification that you can carry with you for life. If you take that away from teenagers you risk their lives becoming unkind, less structured and more vulnerable to a sense of cosmic boredom. It would be much harder to motivate teenagers through the middle years of the school system without a measure of their progress.

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