The government is scrapping GCSEs for English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBaccs) in a drive to improve standards. Or that’s what they say. But is returning to a 100 per cent exam-based qualification and marginalising creativity really the best way to teach our teenagers, asks Michael Donlevy? Or is there a darker motive?
I hated exams – but I recognised their value. Exams are meant to be hard. ‘When are we ever going to use trigonometry again?’ we moaned. But exams teach the ability to retain information, react quickly and think clearly under pressure, all skills that have served me well in a hectic career.
There has to be a balance, however. I think back to my own experience, and a large chunk of my Business & Information Studies GCSE was coursework-based, but in a classroom environment. It was far more valuable to be tested on IT skills, practical project skills and presentation than it was to sit in an exam spouting theory. And presenting to a group of local business leaders was no less nerve-wracking, so there has to be a place for practical testing alongside a drive to improvement in basic standards in English and maths.
‘I worry that a single exam will take away any creativity and critical thinking and problem solving,’ says English and drama teacher Mary O’Driscoll. ‘Controlled Assessment is where all the discussion and exploration happens, and the essays children write are very much their own thoughts and ideas.
‘A single exam tests memory and regurgitation, not skill,’ she adds. ‘Surely we want our students to be adaptable and critical? And where’s the place for the speaking and listening that makes up 20 per cent of the English language course? For students that find it difficult to express themselves in writing, the oral aspect can be a really important element. And depending on the career they want to go into, just as valuable.’
The danger, of course, is that we return to a two-tier schooling system that rewards the naturally gifted/rich and marginalises the less academically able/poor – especially given that children mature at different rates. I knew a boy at school who was a bully and a trouble maker, who hung out with at least one kid who ended up in prison, yet he scraped enough GCSEs to get into sixth form, where in a different crowd he transformed into a hard-working, outgoing and decent bloke. I doubt that would have happened had he sat old-style O Levels.
‘And when I last checked, the Ebacc list did not include subjects like music, art and drama, relegating them to the joke subjects that we have fought so hard to change,’ adds O’Driscoll. ‘These creative subjects are so important to explorative and creative thinking and it will be a great loss if they are left behind.’
Tony Cooper, a retired headteacher and author of Head On The Block, says: ‘A theme of my book is the interference and short-termism of politicians who have their eye more to public approval than to the genuine needs of young people. One must also question whether such a dramatic changes to exam systems will do anything to raise standards. It’s only a year since the Diploma – heralded by the last government as the qualification of choice – was scrapped. There appears to be a dogged determination by the current Secretary of State to turn the clock back to what will inevitably result in a two-tier system.’
And therein lies the danger. The name English Baccalaureate Certificate implies privilege. But EBaccs should be practical and useful for those who don’t go to university, as well as those who do. Degrees have been devalued by the proliferation of daft, almost embarrassing subjects. So while my parents were proud of me going to university, I’d be more proud of my son for attaining a good standard in EBaccs that show he can read, write and add up than I would be of him going to university to study a pointless subject and write essays full of bad grammar.
But that perhaps implies GCSEs are worthless, something O’Driscoll strongly refutes: ‘The exams and the course are hard. The so-called “race to the bottom” is due to privatised exam boards. As a teacher, I only have sway over the CA marks I send off, which have been deemed exemplary. So if anyone’s been diddling grades for too long it’s not me. It’s not GCSEs that are ‘not fit for purpose’ – it’s the shitty private exam boards overseen by Ofqual.’
For what it’s worth, schoolchildren agree. In a new survey by community website Movellas.com, more than two thirds of 12-18 year olds felt the pressure to pass exams was stifling creativity. And while 83 per cent of children enjoy school, 58 per cent feel they can be pushed harder and 63 per cent dismiss the idea that ‘traditional’ subjects such as English, maths and science are too old-fashioned.
So actually, this could be an opportunity for change… that probably won’t be taken, because politicians are looking in the wrong place for answers. They need to make sure our children are assessed and marked fairly, and that our children are given a stepping stone to something more – skills, a vocation, the ability to stand up and think for themselves, to do things. Oh, and know things – useful things that matter. Then, maybe, we will have an education system of which we can be proud.