For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, this morning a document was leaked to The Daily Mail which lays out proposed changes to secondary education, including scrapping both GCSEs and the National Curriculum, in favour of a return to O Level styles exams and giving headteachers freedom to choose what their students are taught. The BBC News article is a thorough write-up on the matter, and the Guardian has some interesting quotes and a good break down of how the reforms will be introduced.
Mum and I have a good rant every now and then about the annual bashing that students get when, every single year, they get better results than the previous year and the response is ‘GCSEs/A Levels are getting easier’. I didn’t really notice this trend until I got my GCSE results – probably because I didn’t pay too much attention to the news before the age of 16, but mostly because that was the year I had a personal investment in what everyone else was saying about my newly gained, hard-earned and proudly celebrated qualifications. And, as per, there was the usual ignorant chatter about how the increase in A*-C grades earned could only mean that GCSEs were an absolute doddle.
Since my GCSEs, I’ve experienced an array of assessments as I moved through AS Levels, A Levels, and my BA (the results of which I just found out, and I’m proud to say I got a first). And I can honestly say that, looking back on every stage of my academic career, my GCSEs were the hardest exams I’ve ever done. I’d say this was down to a couple of things – they were the first real exams I’d taken for a while (my school didn’t do Year 9 SATs), and all the practise exam papers in the world can’t prepare you for the reality of knowing that your performance over the next couple of hours decides part of your future. In addition to that, I took 11 subjects at GCSE. Despite the fact that two of those subjects were ‘short’ courses, therefore only counting for half a GCSE each, that’s still 11 different disciplines which I was expected to get a good grasp on in two years, some of which were only allotted two periods of the timetable per week.
I have never had to hold that breadth of information in my head since. I doubt very many people have. Some students take 12, 13, 14 subjects. And I think it’s absolutely the right and the only way to help students decide which subjects, of the many that their schools have to offer, they would like to pursue further at AS Level and beyond. But I will fight fiercely with anyone who tries to tell me that it is not difficult, particularly if they have not had something very similar demanded of them in the past five years.
If GCSE results are on the rise, my first instinct would be to suggest that this is because the students taking GCSEs this year have been moving through a system of education which has been preparing them to take those exams. GCSEs have been around for 24 years. That means teachers, both primary and secondary, have been aiming for that recommended five GCSEs at A*-C for a long time. They know what and how they must teach in order to get the majority of students achieving that, and naturally they’re getting better at it every year. GCSEs are the only examinations which students have to take, even if they drop out of school immediately afterwards. Those exams are the goal. They are the benchmark. So why on earth is our first instinct to claim that those exams are worthless, when instead it might mean that our teachers are doing a good job? Only in teaching, it seems, is ‘working the system’ to meet government quotas something which ought to be stopped, not praised.
And if meeting quotas shouldn’t be the goal of GCSEs, then what precisely is the goal of these new, ‘tougher’ O Levels and their ‘less academic’ counterpart, the CSEs? To separate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students at the age of 14 and limit those people to following certain career paths and lifestyles? To discourage even the best of students when they fail to get the As and A*s they were otherwise heading for? To prove that the English are tough and elitist so we can have ridiculous, Four Yorkshiremen-style bragging rights? ‘In my day, the only way to get an A* was to carve your answer into the buttocks of a live tiger…and we loved it!’
If there’s one method of assessment I think that every Level could benefit from, it’s continuous assessment. This has been a small part of most of the modules I’ve taken as a BA Drama student – never any more than 25% worth of my overall mark for that module, but significant nonetheless to my attitude in classes. Basically, a continuous assessment mark is like an effort grade. It’s a representation of what kind of student you have been in a class – whether you’ve been attentive, whether you’ve been punctual, how much you have contributed towards class discussions and the quality of those contributions, and what kind of person you are shaping up to be. Because that’s something we really ought to be developing and assessing – not who can regurgitate the most information under pressurised conditions, only to forget it two weeks later – and I’d like to point out that I have never found exam technique to be the slightest bit useful to me in the ‘real world’, except in learning lines and performing them. Acting isn’t learning, Michael Gove.
We need to give some power to the teachers, who spend so many meaningful contact hours with their students, to decide what they achieve. And we should do this not by giving them a different set of hoops for them to teach their students to jump through come exam day, but by introducing some method whereby the teachers can reward those students who made the effort, in every class, to learn, not just remember, and to contribute, not just achieve A*-C. Because ultimately, the people who put in the work continuously are learning much more valuable skills than those who cram an hour before an exam so they can get a good grade.