For many years now I have been telling my long-suffering partner that if I was the Head of Education for the world – or at least England – I would scrap GCSEs. My reasoning has always been the stark difference in attitude towards their studies between a 15 or 16-year-old and an 18-year-old. For those secondary school teachers amongst us, I have three questions: firstly, how many phone calls have you made home regarding under-performing year 11 students since September? And how many times have you had to rampage across the playground during lunchtimes and after school to find year 11 students who need to catch up on missed work? And how many nights sleep have you lost worrying about year 11 students not being ready for those all-important dates in May and June when they must demonstrate everything they have ever learnt in your subject?
I remember watching a year 13 boy, Rami, presenting at a non-compulsory after-school media workshop in his tie and v-neck sweater. I remember watching him and thinking, “You used to run teachers ragged! The hours you have clocked up during your school career sitting outside offices for all the wrong reasons…and now look at you!’ You see, throughout Key Stage 4, teenagers, especially boys, start to shoot up in height: gangly limbs are knotted under desks, backs slumped as they can’t quite work out how to comfortably house this new lofty physique in a classroom for an hour-long lesson. Their adolescent brain is still battling with huge physical and chemical changes, but more importantly, they have got to remember, amongst numerous other content details, how Ted Hughes and Wilfred Owen use language, form and structure to present a soldier’s life in war.
But two years later, that spindly, awkward figure that stumbled over what felt like its own clown-like feet into your classroom, has now broadened and matured. They move with greater ease and confidence, and they are taking themselves seriously. They talk about their futures; they are keen to discuss UCAS applications and want your opinion on whether that choice most suits the person they think they probably want to become. Decision-making is more fascinating, relevant and more vital. So, this why I have always proposed (quietly) the culling of GCSEs.
It was therefore no surprise that I was happy to be a guest on Victoria Derbyshire’s show this week discussing Robert Halfon’s call for the scrapping of GCSEs. Of course, my above argument was not on his bullet point list justifying his stand for a holistic baccalaureate at the age of eighteen in place of cliff-edge assessments at sixteen, but I have to say I am very much on board with the bullet points he did present.
We have to recognise that a knowledge-rich curriculum is not really serving the needs of this generation as they look towards their futures. I attended a debate a few years ago on this new curriculum, and I remember a key and controversial figure in education saying in support of it, ‘Even if they fail, at least they can be in the job centre and say “I know these things”.’ How alarming. To even in your mind, be content with our children’s future unemployment. And to think listing the kings and queens of England and the ability to perform Macbeth’s speech from Act 1 scene 7 for the employees of your local job centre will wow them into fixing you up with that supervisor role at the local depot is deluded. They might, however – though possibly moved by your performance – be more interested in your ability to communicate effectively, or maybe in your problem-solving skills and ability to act on your initiative in the scenario of ‘systems down’ and the like.
But wouldn’t it also be exciting for our children to be able to explore a greater range of subjects for longer? To not be tied to a pathway at the age of thirteen, but to spend more time in a curriculum which allows access to the academic and the vocational, to experience the creativity in every subject. I remember hearing Alex Bellos decrying our current focus on the ‘academic’ subjects and the ‘creative’ subjects. For him, a mathematician, his subject is infinitely creative. When you study Maths at university, the right and the wrong, the ticks and the crosses are nowhere to be seen, as this subject is inherently one of exploration. If only I had been told this at five years of age, I might not have spent my Maths career trying to avoid lessons and ticking off days until that GCSE was done, and Maths was no longer part of my life. But, of course, it is. I was just never taught in a way which encouraged me to understand how I might apply my Maths skills daily. Instead, I spent my lessons trying to be invisible for fear of being wrong!
And I see my children experiencing the same fear and so I ask myself, ‘Shouldn’t we have moved forwards in our view of education and its purpose?’ The EBacc is out of date. Where are we going to stand in the world, in the era of the fourth industrial revolution with a generation who are ‘knowledge-rich’ yet stressed and lacking in the essential skills? How will our future surgeons cope when, as I was recently told, our medical students can’t sew? A leading surgeon at Imperial is bringing in seamstresses and magicians to teach sewing and the skill of reading body language. What is going on when Kenneth Baker, the man responsible for the introduction of GSCEs is openly saying scrap them? He calls for a ’knowledge-engaged’ curriculum. Knowledge is wonderful to have but it’s not enough on its own. The application of knowledge through a range of well-developed skills is surely much more ‘rigorous’ than simply being able to spout facts. And let’s face it, if you have Alexa or Google Home sitting on your sideboard, they will do that for you. But they definitely can’t read your body language.
I welcome this new debate. If we are going to have anything to offer the world, future generations need to be able to problem solve and negotiate and be more than a piece of AI. And surely we want to make education feel valuable as an experience. I fear, in this country, we see education as something we ‘get through’ before we start to live – I certainly did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students were excited to enter school because the language of success and failure had become obsolete in the pursuit of a journey towards the person you want to be. A holistic approach, removing the weight of assessment at the age of sixteen years, could actually refocus the purpose of learning: students will be asking ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I get myself there?’ rather than ‘how do I remember everything for June?’ and ‘What’s the point of this?’ Sounds better, doesn’t it?