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GCSEs are a pointless waste of time

Susan Elkin

76230261 300x200 GCSEs are a pointless waste of timeGCSEs are pointless. I told my head of department that 10 years ago and nothing has happened since to change my mind.

That is not, of course, to belittle the efforts of tens of thousands of young people who are, at this moment, sweating (perhaps literally given recent lovely weather which they are not at liberty to enjoy) their socks off to pass the footling things. It’s just that they are being forced to jump through far too many tiresome, time-consuming hoops for no good reason. And it is scandalous that things have come to this.

A few facts. Last year almost 70% of 16 year olds achieved at least 5 GCSE passes with grades A*-C.  And 58% of GCSE sitters got 5 good passes including English and maths.

Those figures have risen annually for 23 years since GCSE was introduced in 1988 – and I, incidentally, was Head of English in a secondary school with the responsibility for managing the switch to the new system. So I’ve been involved with this since Day 1.

How nice it would be to think that pupils are becoming more able and/or that teaching, learning and attainment standards are rising. Not a bit of it – sadly.

Hardly a week goes by without a business, or business organisation, complaining about the poor levels of general education in school leavers and graduates. Companies such as Tesco have to test job applicants in literacy and numeracy before recruiting them.

Last year the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development reported that companies were hiring fewer 16 year olds and  graduates but taking on more migrant workers instead – with many citing weak maths and English as the reason for rejecting UK-educated young people.

Even at the most elementary level of literacy many people, most of whom will have passed GCSE English, struggle with spelling. A survey to launch Mencap’s Spellathon last week sampled 2,000 people and found one in five unable to spell five everyday words selected from a list which included words such as necessary, separate, definitely, parallel and embarrass. And that, remember, is after having spent a minimum of 11 years in full-time education.

It really doesn’t need an Einstein, or – not the same thing at all – someone with 10 A*s at GCSE, to see that if exam grades continue to rocket at the same time as employers bemoan declining educational standards there must be a something seriously wrong with the system.

Even Ofqual, the exams regulator, has at long last acknowledged the problem. Its head, Glenys Stacey, spoke earlier this month of ‘persistent grade inflation for at least a decade.’

Changes are afoot – or will be if the coalition stays in power long enough to implement them. There is to be, for example, an overhaul of the National Curriculum and other reviews which could lead to long term changes.

The school leaving age is due to rise to 18 by 2015. The majority of our young people already remain in full-time education way beyond age 16 anyway, partly, but not entirely, because there are so few job opportunities for them.

John Cridland, Director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)  – an organisation which has been condemnatory of education standards for many years – recently spoke at a conference which launched the CBI’s enquiry into education. He argued that GCSEs encourage teaching to the test and may be past their sell-by date. He also suggested that abandoning GCSE could help to deliver a more rounded education.

Spot on, Mr Cridland. Why are we wasting so much time cramming teenagers for predictable, formulaic tests which involve huge swathes of utterly pointless rote learning to the exclusion of thinking independently and mastering skills?

An exam or test should be almost peripheral to the serious business of learning – something you come to at the very end of the course to confirm that you’ve studied to a certain level. It’s a non-event if you’ve been well taught and have taken your learning seriously.  The exam certainly should not dominate every thought and every lesson throughout the course. But GCSEs have turned into an enormous Great Dane of a tail wagging a very tiny Chihuahua of a dog.

For example, outside ‘education’ most people don’t know what an assessment objective, or AO, is – and they haven’t missed a lot. An AO is a numbered statement summarising what the student is meant to be able to show s/he has learned.  English literature AO4, for instance, is ‘Relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts,’ while AO1 deals with responding ‘critically and imaginatively.’  21st century examiners have to work with lists of these and note in the margins when their requirements have  been met. And there’s no credit whatever for the student who thinks outside the box.

A friend who marks GCSE English Literature scripts tells me that most schools now train their students to write the numbers of AOs in the margins of their answers next to the place where the candidate is dealing with them. It means that the exam ‘essay’ has been reduced to the equivalent of painting by numbers. How can such a formulaic travesty possibly have anything to do with real learning?

Part of the trouble with GCSE is that it is immensely time consuming. Many students take 10 or 11 subjects each of which has several components and many boxes to tick.

It’s time we went back to using most of that precious class time for Real Education. Proper learning cannot be reductively listed.   School years 10 and 11 should be devoted to the acquisition of top notch literacy and numeracy, reading more books, learning more science, history, geography and so on.

Without GCSE looming there would also be more time for communication skills, IT, citizenship and all the other things required in a well-rounded 21st century education. It would be much easier to fit music and other performing arts in too.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to all those young people who are working so hard at the moment to get over a colossal hurdle which actually achieves so little. They are being sold seriously short.

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  • georgefripley

    No worries Trish and no need to apologise…I am not offended – I was fortunate that my teachers were, generally, pretty good, however I did let myself down on occasions, probably becasue I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have done!. 

  • joe3945

    Ms Elkin, I applaud your post here. GCSEs are a substitute for learning now. When I was in school we read 10 or 11 books each year, along with short stories, poetry, plays, and non-fiction. My daughter has read one this year: Of Mice and Men. No time for anything but Of Mice and Men. Because the test is on Of Mice and Men.

  • joe3945

    Drinking pints in the pub. Very pleasurable waste of time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/persian.rabia Persian Rabia

    I really enjoyed reading this article. It’s true that many students in year 10 and 11, spend most of their time cramming information in order pass exams with good grades. Little value is put upon, interpersonal skills, manners, general knowledge et cetera. Many A*/A candidates know little outside the school ciricullum.


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