Category Archives: EDUCATION COMMENT

IS IT TIME TO SCRAP GCSES?

In his article in the guardian on Friday http://gu.com/p/4xxbm, Peter Wilby made a good case for the abolition of the GCSE as a qualification in England and it has to be said he makes a compelling case.  Before I go further, let me say that I largely agree with everything he writes.  The GCSE is no longer fit for purpose, mainly because it no longer has an obvious purpose!
As Wilby discusses, once upon-a-time, when pupils left school at age 16 and only 10% or so of those leavers went on to study A levels, there was a clear need for a qualification that assessed the general skills and academic achievements of the school leaving population.  Employers had to be able to discern between applicants for jobs and apprenticeships.  I believe that GCSEs did this well, especially within the grade boundaries A (or later A*) to C.
However, as the number of pupils who remain in education rose and rose over the years to a point in time now, where post 16 education is compulsory, the need for a stand-alone, high-risk qualification at 16 seems entirely unnecessary.  Surely if we were designing the education system from scratch to include compulsory education to 18 we wouldn’t stick in a huge exam session just two years prior to this.  What would be the purpose?  Yes students should have their progress assessed at this point, but not in this way and why would 16 be more important than 15 or 17 on the road to whatever final qualification the individual gains at 18.  Furthermore, increasingly I find through my own teaching that the GCSE has ceased to be a particularly good preparation for A level.  Those who have done GCSE sciences don’t seem to have a good grasp of some fundamental material that would allow them to access the A level material in my subject (biology).
I happen to believe that the university system in England and the A levels that allow entry to it should be retained and have many strong features.  It would be on the back of these two institutions that I would build our education system.  Wilby wrote about removing the “full stop” of the GCSE and replacing it with a “semi-colon.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Why not a series of semi-colons throughout ones educational experience until one is ready to leave the system.
It would be easy to imagine a system in which the educational experience from the age of 11 (or 10, or 12 or 14 or whatever age we decide it is more appropriate) that, year on year, gives our young people a deeper and narrower educational experience leading up to university entrance and incorporating the A level.  Students should be assessed regularly and should have to achieve a minimum standard in order to progress to the next level, but we would no longer have the “this is the most important thing you will ever do” exams at age 16.  There should also be a range of attractive, useful options for students to leave this system in order to pursue other equally valid, perhaps broader, perhaps more vocational routes.  In fact I wish there were more of these at present in order that more pupils had more opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Another brave move would be to remove the age-based cohort system altogether and to have pupils progress through the educational system at a rate that best suits them and so that they reach the next level when they are ready, not just because they reach a certain age.  For a refreshing take on this and other matters, take a look at Ken Robinson’s RSA animate lecture http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Why shouldn’t a student be elevated through the system if they are good enough?  This happens in the work place and in almost all other areas of life.  The best candidates in the work-place are promoted over the less good ones and their age or number of years at the company is usually not a factor.
Under the last Labour government there was a move towards a 14-19 agenda, but the GCSE was retained – it will be a brave government that remove it.  14-19 makes sense.  There are some LEAs in England that operate a “middle/upper school” system so that children move schools at year 9 (age 13/14), in fact I briefly taught in an excellent one – King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, the thing that may save the GCSE in the end could be simply a matter of practicalities and infrastructure.  The ever-complex system of schooling in England (comprehensives, grammars, free schools, academies, independent schools, FE colleges, middle schools, upper schools, public schools etc etc) means that it suits the running of our educational establishments to retain the status quo.  If we remove the GCSE, and education is compulsory until 18, why have a school that says goodbye to its pupils at 16?  But those schools exist and in great numbers.  They don’t have space to expand and we certainly can’t close them down.  Should their pupils not have anything to show for their five years at their high school?  GCSEs still make sense to a degree in this context.
So, as a product of the GCSE system (2A*, 6A, 1B in 1995 if you were wondering – fairly humble by today’s standards), I would have to conclude that they are probably here to stay unless a government of the future is prepared to spend a lot of time and money coming up with something better and then implementing it in the face of waves of objection, vested interest and unhappiness.  That would be a brave government indeed.
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LABOUR OPPOSE TORY A LEVEL REFORMS

Having written previously about why I fear Michael Gove’s A level reforms will disadvantage our young people and lower standards rather than raise them, I read with interest in today’s Guardian that Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary has committed to putting Tory A level reforms “on hold” should Labour win the next election.  Although he states that some elements of the new A levels will be retained, crucially, the AS level component will be retained.  It remains to be seen which other elements they would chose to keep, but I do hope that coursework, controlled assessment and multiple opportunities to take papers form some part of any new A level introduced under a Labour government.
In the article http://gu.com/p/4vk8p reference is made to the unhappiness of universities and schools and of how the Tory proposals would benefit candidates at independent schools.  Retention of the AS system wold be extremely valuable to students from state schools who wish to apply to university.  At present these candidates make more progress from GCSE to A level and so often apply to university with GCSE grades that do not reflect their true ability.  The AS level allows them to demonstrate this progress to the universities before they apply and so allows them to compete better with their peers at private schools who may well also have good AS levels, but who are statistically more likely to have better GCSE grades.
I will not here disclose my political persuasion and would say that it appears that some current Labour party policy is designed to be reactionary and made for the purposes of political point scoring.  However, when Hunt in his speech claims that “The Tories are turning the clock back on social mobility. David Cameron’s regressive policy to end the current AS-level qualification will close the window of opportunity for many young people wanting to go to university,”  This is not simply electioneering or opposition for the sake of opposition, on this matter, Labour have a point, and a good one.  Gove’s reforms are likely to damage the opportunities of state-educated pupils.

NEW A-LEVEL SET TO REDUCE STANDARDS?

Above is a link to an article questioning the rationale of changing the A level system from the modular system we’ve had since 2000 (and which existed in parts before then) back to a system that prevailed for many years until the mid-1990s, of assessing A level students at the end of two years of study.
The article here suggests that the DFE did their research and found that ditching the AS level as an indicator of academic progress is justified by the accuracy of GCSE grades as a predictor of future success at degree level.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.   But, is this really the point?  My understanding was that the reforms proposed by Michael Gove and the coalition government were intended to make the A level “more rigorous” and return it to the “gold standard” it used to be (assuming you believe A levels no longer are a gold standard).
Do poorer results mean that standards have been raised?
One thing is certainly true, assuming that the assessment criteria remain the same, the marking is applied to the new system as it was to the old system and that the course content remains broadly the same (potentially big assumptions, but lets go with it for now), the number of students achieving the highest grades will go down under the new system.  This will then be heralded as a success in certain quarters.  There will be much talk of the “end of dumbing-down” and a “toughening up” of the A level system.  It will make an almost impossible job for university admissions departments a little bit easier as fewer students will make their offers and perhaps fewer students will go to university overall.  This will also be considered a good thing in certain circles, with derisory comments made about degree programmes referred to as “Mickey Mouse” in their content and worthiness.
However to consider what has happened here, is to consider the purpose of education.  One can define “a good education” in many different ways and there will be several different opinions as to what constitutes a “good” education.  Nevertheless, whatever, philosophically, you consider to be a good education, it is a fact that: in schools and colleges throughout the country, students are studying A levels, those A levels have a content, the content is taught to them by teachers and one measure of the success of those students is how well and how much of the content they have managed to learn and apply.
So, again applying the assumptions before regarding assessment criteria, marking standards and content, if students get lower marks in the their exams, one conclusion and certainly the one that I would draw, is that fewer students learned less material on their A level programme, they could express themselves less well and were less well able to apply knowledge learned during their programme of study.  Therefore we have succeeded in “reforming” an education system so that less is learned by fewer people.  In other words we claim to have “raised” standards because our results are worse and our young people don’t know and understand as much.  A somewhat backward conclusion wouldn’t you say so?
Now no doubt there will be noises made about “the cream rising to the top” but this is a flawed argument, yes, the very best students will still do well and they would be rewarded, but the existing system (although not perfect, I will admit) helps students with potential to fulfil that potential and be rewarded for their effort and their learning “journey”.
When you are 16, two years is a long time!
It is a long two years.  A levels are traditionally taught on two-year programmes when children are aged 16-18 and make the step into adulthood.  A very formative time.  At this age personalities, skill-sets, outlooks and motivations are still being developed.  Some very good students will be committed to a steady two-year learning journey.  However some equally good ones will not quite manage this and will delay preparation for exams until those exams are approaching at the end of their two years of study.  As a result, they won’t learn as much!
“IT’S THEIR OWN FAULT!” People will cry.  “They should have worked hard for two years not just the last three months!”  A good point and one with some merits, but an unrealistic one and one that does not recognise the needs, requirements and different learning styles of today’s young people.  Sixteen year olds need to learn how to learn, they need to make mistakes and learn from them, they need to hear something more than once and have a chance to try new things, including new ways of learning and studying.  The modular system allowed for this perfectly.  If you are tested on something once and get a certain result, then you are tested on it again at a later date and get a better result then a logical conclusion to me is that you have learned something!
My students are wonderful!
As an A level teacher, I see this all the time.  My students develop skills, they build their knowledge, they develop links and understandings between different areas of the A level syllabuses and indeed between their different subjects and quite often, by the time they take their final exam, they have learned an awful lot not only about biology (my subject) but about learning, about education (with a small ‘e’) and about themselves.  I fear that the removal of the modular system will remove much of this subtlety and the best “educated” will be deemed to be those who have crammed best for their final exam and who are good at doing exams rather than those who have learned the most or, dare I say it, those who are the best educated.
RIP January exams
When we lost the January exam session, we lost a big benefit of the modular system.  In my experience, re-sits in January were successful.  Students more often than not did better in January than they had the previous June.  Why?  They were motivated by their previous result, they learned more material, they matured as people they could see a value in working harder to help them on to the next stepping stone towards their ultimate goal.  For some it even established exactly what that goal was, it being absent previously.  The coalition reforms reduced this opportunity with the dropping of the January exam and the new system arriving in 2015 will remove it altogether.
By the way, the re-take system was not just for students who failed first time around.  Many of my students with a “low A” would re-sit papers in January to get a “higher A” that would set them up nicely for their next exam session.  I was always impressed that these young people were prepared to put more pressure on themselves in this way to help them achieve their ambitions.  Now all this pressure will come at the end of a two year programme.  One shot.  One chance.
When the changes come in, teachers, students and universities will adapt, but I fear that, ultimately, standards will fall, not rise and this will be Gove’s legacy to the A level system.