So the GCSE and A-Level examination circus is over for another year, apart from requests for re-marks. There are celebrations and disappointments for those who have taken these exams and somehow these real young people are overlooked in the analysis of data and political point scoring from the educational and the political fraternities.
Fraternity is an interesting word. Why do we use it for ‘general community’ (even though its real meaning is “brotherhood”) rather than sorority – its female equivalent? For, according to these results, sorority would be more apt when discussing examination results as the weight of “success” lies firmly with the young women at present.
If there is anything truly significant arising from the August sport of statistical scrutiny it’s the fact that there is nearly a 9% difference in the GCSE A-C pass rate between young women and young men, yet this statistic is barely spoken of; merely left to the final paragraphs of a newspaper article like the one below.
But what of this statistical scrutiny? What is its purpose? Headlines are created, political points are scored – that’s all.
The headline last week was that A-Level results had slipped for the first time in 30 years. You had to read much further into an article to see that it was down by a mere 0.1%. A similar insignificant percentage rise appeared in the GCSE results, with the exception of English – which, as we know, has been the pet target for the former Secretary of State’s “rigour” drive for education.
The real issue about these statistics, and their analysis, is that these young people – remember, the human beings behind this data – are being conditioned to think that examination results are the “be all and end all” of education, and the fact that journalists, educationalists and politicians persist in channeling their energies into data-crunching merely exacerbates this notion.
(A brief point to headline writers (NB the link above): should you really be using the word “pain” to express views on GCSE exam passes and failures simply because it alliterates with “pupil”? Firstly, according to the dreaded data, there was actually a rise in passes. Secondly “pain” is a very strong word and more apposite to the suffering of children in Gaza, Syria and Iraq this August than the disappointment of a “C” rather than “B” grade in English.)
Thank goodness for the sensible folk who question the whole purpose and significance of GCSEs at all – like the CBI, which we suspect would be massively disappointed that the speaking and listening element of the English GCSE has been removed. The CBI’s constituent members want young people to be communicative, able to initiate and project ideas, able to talk and to listen. Where are these abilities recorded as significant in our examination system?
Another sensible person, Jonny Mitchell – head of the Thornhill Academy that featured in Channel 4s “Educating Yorkshire” – has written in the Guardian expressing his concerns about league tables, results and the loss of the human being behind the statistics:
“But something has been forgotten. Yes, it’s amazing to be able to tell the world that your school has enjoyed another record-breaking year of results, but it only matters if the kids have got what they need to follow their dreams.
Even in the highest performing schools, some kids are disappointed, or have their ambitions stymied by an errant grade.
Results day is a genuine maelstrom of emotion which is difficult to replicate anywhere else. What we have to absolutely nail is the misconception, often stemming from the kids themselves, that not achieving a certain grade represents failure.”
He concludes his piece with this comment.
“I long for the day when performance tables can accurately incorporate the extent to which young people are ready for the challenges which lie ahead – gaining employment, raising a family, relationships, human interaction to name but a few. I suppose we can but hope. GCSE results, whatever they look like, are a start, though.”
The irony is that as long as there are league tables that only account for the measurables in education, Jonny Mitchell’s dream may never be realised. Tracking of personal and social development, as we’ve advocated consistently, may be a way forward but only if it involves the pupils themselves. We certainly don’t want to see our young human beings graded for their ability to be empathetic or how they manage their emotions. We just want these important intelligences to be recognised as important – as important as the ability to read, write and analyse. And we want our children and young people to be valued for more than their exam results.
Returning to the GCSEs and the political point scoring, we’d like to make this very simple request – give education back to educationalists, or, even better, give education and learning back to children and young people.
Jonny Mitchell’s point is a good one. Exams only matter “if the kids have got what they need to follow their dreams”. But where are we enabling our young people in the current education system to “follow their dream” or as Sir Ken Robinson says “find their element”?
Where are we saying that it’s as important to learn a musical instrument – if you want to – as it is to solve a mathematical equation? Where in our education system are we allowing pupils to read books of their choice rather than keeping them on a bookshelf for a suitable time after the prescribed dosage of literature has been “studied”? Where in the curriculum are we providing time for children and young people to consider and review their feelings about life and about themselves, or allowing time to empathise with the plight of their peers in countries where war is rife – or how they feel about the images of death and destruction that they’ve seen on their television screens throughout the summer?
The sixteen and eighteen year olds in the UK today have been tested and examined to the point of oblivion. They’ve been assessed at the age of 7. They’ve been tested at the age of 11. They’ve been scrutinised and directed in their learning with the main focus on league tables and ranking rather than the individual needs of the individual child. They “know” that placing a learning outcome at the top of their piece of work tells them that they have (or haven’t) learned something. They feel “pain” if they are less “successful” than anticipated because that is what they’ve been conditioned to think and feel.
As importantly, they are guinea pigs in a system that is altered perpetually by the whims of politicians rather than the motivations and needs of children and society. In ten years’ time, who is going to even look at what grades they achieved at GCSE? Is anyone really going to analyse whether they took their GCSEs in 2012 (when there was the first outcry about GCSE English results) or 2013 or 2014? Does anyone really think that a prospective employer is going to sit there and say, “Ah I see Candidate X got an A* in 2014 whereas Candidate Y got an A* in 2013 – Candidate X gets the job!”
Our young people consist of far more than their results on a piece of paper. Our young people are far more important than the political manoeuvrings that reconstitute examinations taken year by year. Our children and young people have rights, and a fair, rigorous, inclusive and diverse education is what they deserve – and isn’t necessarily what they are receiving.
Now that the scrutiny of statistics is over for another year, can we start this academic year once more with a will to create an education system that is meaningful and purposeful for the people it should be there to serve – our next generation?
We’ve often commented in this blog about our belief that GCSEs should be scrapped. WE don’t want to belittle the achievements of our young people but this exam is an anachronism in a system that insists on children being educated until the age of 18.
Our next post will explore this point further.