Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best . . .
– Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
Eric Idle/Monty Python
There are several good things to be said about the current almighty row over the Gove/Clegg announcement regarding the abolition of GCSEs, and whatever’s to follow that abolition. Let’s take three to begin with. Or possibly four.
1. It’s going to cause more and more people to question the right of politicians to make decisions about education and the wellbeing of children in our schools.
For example, my cousin, who’s a solicitor and is very interested in who creates legislation in this country and with what degree of legitimacy, said to me this week that he’s incredulous that a career politician can make such swingeing changes to what happens in schools without any experience or proper understanding of learning and teaching, and without any prior consultation with all the relevant bodies and individuals. The coalition has no real mandate for radical change anyway, and in fact in its manifesto it specifically said that it wouldn’t continue with the New Labour habit of imposing radical top-down change on public services.
Here’s a selection of opinions from people within the profession:
Chris Keates, head of the Nasuwt teachers’ union said: “The government will have to work hard to ensure that these reforms are not the final nail in the coffin for the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum.”
“Tinkering with exams is a cheap and relatively easy lever for governments, which has been used and over-used in the past couple of decades. What would make a real, long-term difference to raising standards for all children would be improving the teaching and learning in all schools – but that’s long, and hard, and expensive,” said Kevin Stannard of the Girls’ Day School Trust.
Martin Johnson of the ATL teachers’ union warned: “The plans for GCSE replacements are hugely simplistic and fail to recognise the complexity of learning and teaching.”
2. It will ensure some clarification of what we mean by a ‘baccalaureate’.
The baccalauréat, often known in France colloquially as le bac, is an academic qualification which French and international students take at the end of the lycée (secondary education). It was introduced by Napoleon I in 1808. It is the main diploma required to pursue university studies. It confirms a rounded secondary education, gives access to a wide range of university education and differs from British Commonwealth A-levels in that it cannot be obtained in single subjects.
So it’s an exam that’s taken at the age of 18 which guarantees that students have covered a wide range of subjects. Very different from the typical English ‘A’ Level course which narrows down the curriculum to 3 subjects – at the behest of the universities who demand that their entrants should have ‘depth’ of knowledge and not ‘breadth’.
[I have strong memories of thinking during the A Level years that it was an outrage that I had to drop all studies in several subjects that I was interested in simply because I was being prepared to memorise information of great complexity and detail for my three exam subjects – information that would subsequently be forgotten, but any case could be discovered at any time in a library, or, as it turns out, on the Internet.]
The new English Baccalaureate Certificate, on the other hand, will typically be taken at the age of 16 and will consist of only three subjects – English, maths and science. So why call it a baccalaureate?
The answer is, of course, that the baccalaureate ‘brand’ has become increasingly prestigious around the world and also in Britain, where more and more schools have opted to have a broad and balanced curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is a two-year educational programme for students aged 16–19 that provides an internationally accepted qualification for entry into higher education, and is recognised by universities worldwide. It was developed in the early to mid-1960s in Geneva by a group of international educators. Following a six-year pilot programme ending in 1975, a bilingual diploma was established.
IBDP students complete assessments in six subjects from the six different subject groups, and complete three core requirements. Subjects are assessed using both internal and external assessments, and courses finish with an externally assessed series of examinations, usually consisting of two or three timed written examinations. Internal assessment varies by subject (there may be oral presentations, practical work, or written works) and in most cases is initially graded by the classroom teacher, whose grades are then verified or modified, as necessary, by an appointed, external moderator.
Generally the IBDP has been well received. It has been commended for introducing interdisciplinary thinking to students. In the United Kingdom, The Guardian newspaper claims that the IBDP is “more academically challenging and broader than three or four A-levels”; however, a pledge to allow children in all areas to study the IBDP was shelved amid concerns that a “two-tier” education system was emerging as the growth in IB was driven by private schools and sixth form colleges.
This is what Anthony Seldon, headteacher of Wellington College, has said about the proposed changes:
“It is extraordinary that clapped-out GCSEs have been allowed to continue for so long, when their deficiencies have been known to all for 10 or more years.
“What is imperative is that the English Baccalaureate should be a test of the ability of pupils rather than of their teachers, assessing independence of thought and response rather than be a regurgitation of prepared answers, and that it should develop scholarship and curiosity.”
So there is a real debate to be had here, and it’s a good thing that one may be just beginning.
The OECD’s international PISA rankings, which regularly put Finland at or near the top for its educational outcomes, carries out tests on 15 year olds around the world that require thoughtful responses to questions which assess pupils’ ability to apply learning to real life.
A factor to take note of, however, (which Mr Gove refuses to do), is that Finland long ago abolished timed tests and exams for pupils below the age of 18.
And so – the French system is a method for ensuring that all students maintain a broad and balanced education up to the age of 18, as does the Finnish system which also promotes creative and critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, study skills, and the development of the full range of intelligences – social, spiritual, emotional, personal, etc.
Mr Gove’s bac is for 16 year olds and isn’t intended to do any of these things.
Anthony Seldon’s school, on the other hand, already offers the International Baccalaureate, and in addition to that commits itself to the personal, social and emotional development of its pupils with self-styled “happiness classes”.
Seldon says the Gove ‘reforms’ SHOULD be a test of the ability of pupils rather than of their teachers; they SHOULD assess independence of thought and response rather than be a regurgitation of prepared answers, and SHOULD develop scholarship and curiosity. Just like the International Baccalaureate. He obviously suspects the new tests won’t actually do any of these things.
3. It will cause more and more people to ask the question – why the hell do we put our kids through the torture of teaching to timed tests and examine them at sixteen anyway?
If the best education systems in the world don’t do it, then why do we? Especially when we can have sophisticated systems for tracking individual pupil progress through personalised learning, with information on assessment being fed back to students and parents at regular intervals?
4. It will cause more and more people to question the purpose and legitimacy of all timed tests and examinations.
For instance, how can they fairly compare students’ actual intellectual ability when many of those taking the tests have had expensive additional coaching out of school and the provision of complete home libraries of the most up to date and often expensive books? To say nothing of instant access to fast personal computers from an early age, and a home environment that is conducive to reflective thought and conversation? Not to mention expensive trips to all kinds of places in this and other countries to further their breadth and depth of knowledge through first-hand experiences?
The biggest scandal of all is that the narrowing down of the academic curriculum to that which can be tested works against all efforts to promote creativity and imagination and the development of each of our essential 6 intelligences. Anthony Seldon can see this. Why can’t Gove?
As we suggested previously in a tweet, have a look at Michael Rosen’s comments on Twitter and in his blog for a humourous as well as a very searching challenge on the whole purpose of examinations.
And don’t forget to look on the bright side of life.
If we can take things forward on the basis of the above four points then it may cause politicians on the Labour side of the Commons to re-think a few of the things they’ve taken for granted about children and testing.
Above all, though, it’s for parents and for young people themselves to consider these issues and begin making some demands for positive change. These things are too important to be left to politicians and even to teachers, who, lets face it, have failed to take a stand, in England at least, on these issues. Can they do so now?
- GCSEs to be replaced by English Baccalaureate (guardian.co.uk)
- English baccalaureate: another dog’s dinner of a plan for exam reform (guardian.co.uk)
- Letters: This tinkering with tests isn’t real reform (guardian.co.uk)