Words cannot properly express how I feel about the government’s proposals to reform the GCSE system but to say I’m angry is an understatement. As many of you know, the government want to replace the GCSE with an English Baccalaureate qualification (EBacc) which which will involve a move away from coursework and assessments to traditional end of year examinations.
This is a backward step in my opinion. As I know from my O level days, exams are not a fair way of measuring knowledge and understanding. All it really tests is memory and examination technique which is hardly reflective of someone’s ‘whole’ intelligence. Coursework on the other hand means you have to research and write a project and meet a deadline. Hard work for many, perhaps even harder than an exam, but a challenge that better reflects the skills needed in the world outside the school gates.
Far better therefore to have both exams and coursework but of course we are led to believe that coursework has seen the cheating “middle classes” helping their children. It’s an accusation that I find quite offensive. I didn’t help my elder daughter (now doing A levels) not because I couldn’t but because I simply didn’t think it right and I am sure I am not the only mother to take such an attitude. Of course I am not naieve enough to think that some students don’t cheat but it wouldn’t take too much imagination to modify the exams to stop it but of course the government don’t want to modify GCSEs. They are on a mission to end grade inflation which in simple terms means they want to reduce the number of young people doing well.
It is shocking that a government actually wants to create failures out of young people but that is what will happen if we move to a narrow way of assessing our children. And for the special needs community, this change is likely to have a huge impact. Children like my aspergers daughter who because of her autistic spectrum disorder and learning difficulties will be unable to cope with a lengthy exam. Processing difficulties, memory problems, handwriting issues and perfectionism are just some of the reasons why sitting an examination will be challenging for my daughter. Yet, underneath is a bright girl who is curious about the world around her and who asks deep and meaningful questions beyond those usually asked by her peer group. But this is not likely to be recognised in an exam and instead she will be defined as an educational failure.
If ever there was a two tier system this is it but one that is brutally divided between passing an exam or not. But the government don’t care; they want to kill the GCSE and to kill the GCSE we have had to suffer a constant stream of negative language.
Too many young people doing well became translated as “dumbing down” and “grade inflation” and “cheating in coursework”. Throw in the universities complaints about selecting the best and employers’ complaints about poor literacy and numeracy and what do you get – an incredibly damaging narrative that was used to justify a move to a new system. Few mentioned that our young people were working harder and that their teachers and schools were teaching better. But in my part of the world that is what has been happening. I have witnessed the change in attitude in my daughter’s generation from mine and I have seen increasing professionalism in the secondary school teachers that teach. Perhaps they learnt from us; I hope so because there is one thing I never wanted my children to endure and that was a crap education, a crap future and a dismal sense of failure. During my 1980s comprehensive education, attitudes were bad both from students and teachers. Teachers weren’t monitored as they are now and whilst there may be many criticisms about Ofsted many teachers in my senior school got away with poor teaching. Students were equally demotivated and classes often descended into shambolic disorder. If anyone left my school with a handful of O levels, they were doing extremely well but the majority didn’t; they sat the infamous CSE which became stigmatised with failure.
But I guess that is one thing we should be grateful for; we aren’t returning to the old O level and CSE, at least in name anyhow. Instead we now have the vaccination-sounding Ebacc but this is still likely to produce huge anxiety over the next few years. Anxiety for parents like me who have a special needs child who will be one of the guinea pigs, anxiety for teachers who have to adapt to a new structure and anxiety from those young people who have just sat or are about to sit GCSE’s. On hearing Gove declare that GCSE’s are “dead” how must this group of young people be feeling right now? With a worthless bit of paper they are likely to end up suffering a crushing blow to their confidence and self esteem, just like me and my peers did during the 1980s. There is one thing I am sure about and that is when attitudes circulate about particular qualifications they can stick for a long time and they can shape your life in a negative way, perhaps for ever, unless you find the courage to sit new examinations as I did.
But of course these new proposals aren’t designed to be fair and inclusive. The government doesn’t really care about all of our children even if it claims to do so in its documental blurb. With so many young people doing well, moving into further education and aiming high it caused a problem for the elite didn’t it? Their grip on the top jobs has come under threat and being the people they are, they didn’t want that. So by introducing an examination as a way of valuing children in a particular way they can reduce the numbers applying for university places. It doesn’t matter whether your child or my child is a hidden genius, if they don’t do well in exams then tough. This isn’t about encouraging our children to be the best they can be but about preserving the elite’s stranglehold of top university places and top jobs whilst maintaining a supply of cheap mass labour.
Just as in my day when the O level/CSE divide defined what you did with your life so will the Ebacc/no Ebacc. Except in name, there really isn’t much difference.