‘Stop the political point-scoring. Our pupils deserve better’

The Telegraph, 20/08/14, as one government after another fiddles with GCSEs and seeks to make its mark, John Newton, headmaster of Taunton School says surely our young people deserve better.

The late great Robin Williams once quipped that politics is made up of two words. 'Poli' comes from the Greek for many and tics are bloodsucking creatures. Politicians have certainly drunk their fill with GCSEs over the years.

I cannot recall the last time a stable, uncontroversial set of GCSE examination results were published.

The running sore of grade inflation, now stemmed, has been overtaken by controversies over exam marking and the impact this year of the removal of modules.

The class of 2014 joins the queue of gifted young people asking – what does this mean? Or more starkly – what have they done to me?

The irony is that governments learn nothing from history. We are now heading into a biting blizzard of phased (for which read, hurried) reform of GCSE specifications and the glorious prospect of a student having a mix of numbers and letters for some years for their results before we convert fully to numbers.

And there is the rub. We aim for comparability over time for our qualifications, so that the grades of a child with GCSEs from 2010 can be compared in the job market with one from, say, 2015.

However, the turbulence to teaching that comes with breathless change and the inevitable information gap for employers will mean that someone, somewhere will be unfairly treated.

And all because of rather shameless political point-scoring as one administration after another fiddles with GCSEs and seeks to make its mark on the body academic.

Surely our young people deserve better than this. One lesson I have learned as a schoolmaster is that if you treat young people like adults you tend to get what you asked for.

We need a contract with our young that guarantees relevance, fairness, stability and predictable evolution in the way we examine them.

Many statistics and surveys state that we are already blessed with a generation of young people who are more civically engaged, more successful academically, more courteous, less prone to lawlessness, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy than ever. This would be a good time to enter into such a long term pact.

Furthermore, we need to remove the lunatics from management of the asylum. Government does best when it works at arm’s length. There is too much engagement from the ministry.

An independent board with representatives from the student, employer and teaching bodies should be charged with hitting specific performance indicators (PISA league table positions? Numbers headed to university? Passes in core subjects?), and held to account by the government of the day.

In the same vein, we give the Bank of England a clear task, agreed across the parties, to deliver on the economy. By all accounts, the results are positive.

Such a board might also be able to answer the question: what is the GCSE for? As one of our most commonly taken examinations, this is surely a key debate. Is it an indicator of what you are good at so you make informed choices for sixth form? Or an end of school certificate?

The latter prevails, but what relevance does that have now in a world where all must stay in education or training until 18, but at the same time universities, now also bereft of information from AS level modules, need a basis upon which to make offers?

Sadly, until our political leaders, drunk on the blood of our examinees, come to realise that they govern in the name of the people, not in the name of re-election, we will have to endure more turbulence.

That will prolong the prospect of knowledgeable, worthy young people scratching their heads on results day.

Read the full article - © The Telegraph (subscription may be required)