Here’s a short polemic for the weekend regarding the state of our nation’s education system.
My son and his friend informed me this morning that they had both passed their maths GCSE with a ‘B’ grade. My natural response was to congratulate them both. I then asked for clarification as to whether this was a final mark or only part of the final grade, despite being convinced that it must be the former as mathematics isn’t a modular subject, i.e. Michael Gove has insisted there is just one final exam.
They confirmed that this was a final grade. However, they had been told that they must continue with the subject throughout the school year in order to try to attain a higher grade. This is in spite of the fact that one of them had been predicted a ‘B’, and the other a ‘B/C’. Both, therefore, had achieved or surpassed their expected grade.
So, here’s the thing.
Neither of these young men has any intention of continuing with the study of this subject into the Sixth Form. Neither of them is particularly interested in the subject. In fact, I would go further and say that they both have a loathing of maths, irrespective of their ability.
Yet, they are now expected to spend the next few months studying for 220 minutes per week a subject which they’ve already excelled at – in order to increase their grade from a seemingly ‘paltry’ B to an A or an A-star.
Furthermore, if they had have achieved an ‘A’ or above, they would have been entered into an additional “Further Maths” GCSE in the summer – whether they liked it or not.
A number of issues arise from this somewhat bizarre situation.
- What are they going to be learning in these 220 minutes per week of maths lesson from now until May? One assumes that there isn’t going to be any new learning because they would have had to complete the curriculum in order to be entered into the exam in November.
- Couldn’t these 220 minutes per week have been better spent on concentrating time, energy and enjoyment on the other subjects that have their final exam during the summer term?
- Even more radical – couldn’t this 220 minutes of learning have been used for something that the young men chose to study of their own volition – perhaps some research/study on the subjects that they are hoping to take at A-Level, or even more radical, spending time learning about something that they are not going to be tested on at the end of term but that they are totally committed to learning about, e.g. conversational Japanese or research on the brilliant plays of Arthur Miller (something that my son wants to do but currently doesn’t have enough time in his day to allocate large amount of time to).
- What sort of education system forces schools to take such dramatic action? Would it perchance have anything to do with league tables? There is the possibility that those who achieved a ‘B’ grade could now, with a little effort and boosting, raise that to a higher grade which would look great on the school’s statistics.
- If they had managed to get an ‘A’ grade in November, why wouldn’t they have had a choice about doing the ‘further maths’ paper?
- What is our education system for? Who is our education system for?
- What messages are we giving to young people about success and failure if we tell them that an A-C pass is what they should be attaining, only to then turn round and say that actually it’s not quite good enough and only the standardised ‘best’ result is worth anything at all?
- When was the last time anyone older than 18 was ever asked what grade they achieved for their GCSE or O-levels?
We really do need to return to the purpose and value of education. If we have to have these anachronistic 16+ exams for the time being, until someone finally works out that the raising of the mandatory school age to 18 has made these exams obsolete, then surely we should be ensuring that the system works to the advantage of the learner, not the provider of learning?
I appreciate that the school is stuck with a system of accountability that means more ‘A’ or ‘A*’ grades in English, Maths and Science make it more likely to achieve an “Outstanding” grade themselves on the next round of Ofsted Inspections. Furthermore, I understand that with this school specifically, the “Outstanding” grade frees them to teach in the way that they want to teach, introducing innovative pedagogy and exciting opportunities for their students. But this is a topsy turvy way of working.
A school should be free to teach, and pupils free to learn, in the way that is best suited to the needs of the child. Of course there has to be accountability, but people and schools should not be prevented from adopting a better teaching and learning philosophy by the constraints of a dictatorial system.
I feel so fortunate that I have a son who wants to learn. The school also benefits from his enthusiasm. He wants to learn for the enjoyment of learning, and not to pass exams. He understands that he needs to pass exams in order to achieve certain goals in life but it is the content, the manner and the purpose of learning that is more important to him. And don’t you just think that freeing up this child and others to choose exactly what they learn might just bring about the excellent results that the school aspires to?
And all of this is happening before the official launch of the EBACC which will scupper for many pupils any real choice or ability to take part in the fantastic learning that can take place in music, drama, art and all those other subjects that will be devalued or dropped because of their lack of inclusion in the EBACC.
The answer? Give my son the right to choose. Give my son’s school the right to choose too. Enable professionals to be able to teach according to their professional values and not according to the constraints and pressures of a system that makes able and eager learners retake exams unnecessarily just to impress people who have never actually spent a working day in their entire lives in a school.