In defence of GCSE and A Level

It is over a year ago (Jan 2013) since the Education Secretary announced his plans to reform A levels. Just because Michael Gove or his Schools minister Elizabeth Truss say stuff doesn’t mean they are right, accurate or even speaking sense. The evidence seems to indicate that much of the discourse comes from personal prejudice and that informed opinion provided by those that ought to know better is largely ignored. As I have previously written, I don’t think it is terribly helpful to compare our democratic post industrial child-centred educational outcomes with those of the tiger economies of South Korea and South East Asia, or specifically cherry-pick Shanghai’s elite educational institutions for comparison. Many commentators will remember how journalists used to compare our own failing athletic endeavours in the seventies against those of countries behind the Iron Curtain. Proper research has enabled us to collect the bits of the East German system that worked and embed them in our own training regimes. And since ‘perestroika’, it is clear now that the nature of the communist regimes were as toxic as we feared they were. Athletic performance has improved, because we have been able to focus money and research together.

By the way, I am not just having a pop at MG and ET,  but with other institutions as esteemed as the Royal Geographical Society who agree with the government (so the headlines show) that current A level is not rigorous enough.  Headlines are never quite what they seem, and actually in the RGS response to the Ofqual consultation on A level reform, they make it quite clear that it is very recent reform that has damaged A level. “Firstly, the Society, teachers and HE geographers strongly support the need to reintroduce course work into GCE geography. This move would promote extended writing, facilitate individual research, analysis and evaluation, and provide additional depth to a student’s geographical learning. The removal of course work has led to less effective assessment of students’ geographical skills and resulted in A2 geography being judged to be less demanding (Ofqual 2012)“. Quite. Reform is always a 2-edged sword, and the recent move with both A levels and GSCEs to remove coursework and other opportunities for sustained practical activity and hands-on learning have taken place to reduce the grade-inflation that such activities bring to the results outcomes. To my mind, the biggest evil that entered the system was the switch from coursework to controlled assessments since 2008, when the GCSE diet ceased to be 10 academic subjects but 110+ externally set and monitored assessments. That took the ‘weighing the pig’ metaphor to new heights of absurdity. As a physics teacher, I found myself with time only to run CAs in Y10 and little more by way of practical activity.

What the RGS make clear in their report is that there will remain equity issues in schools and FE institutions, because institutional  choices do not then guarantee that  “In addition to any fieldwork carried out for an independent study, structured field teaching and learning should be part of all GCE Geography courses given the nature of the subject and the requirements for fieldwork in HE”.

I have read quite a few (sad man that I am) reponses to Ofqual and there is very close agreement a. that there needs to be a strong balance between knowledge and subject skills, b. that both need to be subject based (it’s not just about giving presentations and speaking in public), and c. learners need to be able to handle and become confident with physical equipment and tools, be able to write at length using subject specific vocabulary and to be able to analyse and infer from data to support proposition or make new insights.

And honestly, that’s what in the main our subject delivery has been able guarantee our secondary students for the past 20 years or so. Children have not been cheated out of a better education. I admit that on occasion, the vanity of small differences has meant that a teacher or a child has felt their work not been given the credit deserved, but no wholescale miscarriage of justice has been evident at all.  Much to the contrary, I feel we have been able to support the learner, their community and UK PLC in equal measure. Now (and all data that follows has been generalised to protect the innocent) I move to present my findings from 10 years post A level and GCSE reform since 2000.

So here’s my anecdotal evidence for you to consider, from a broad ability non-selective independent school.  For the past 14 years since A levels were modernised (don’t!) 500 students from Claires Court have worked their academic (in a broad sense) fingers to the bone and 400 gone on to University. The majority of our Sixth Form exit have gained Firsts or Upper Seconds and most whatever their degree quickly entered gainful employment. Some have chosen to emigrate, take their ‘Lingua Franca’ and teach English in Japan, Vietnam, Turkey, Africa and the Americas. Others (perish the thought) have boomeranged back to teach at CC. Most have entered employment with UK PLC, and are progressing up the promotional spine. A few are even working close to 10 Downing Street, despite neither being Eton or Oxford. Perish the thought, despite a series of qualifications that didn’t test them as toughly as Singapore or Taiwan, when meeting with our former pupils, I do see quite clearly leaders and leaderenes of tomorrow’s big business or public service who seem (as they turn 30) very fit and full of purpose.

So where’s the gap? If what I see from the successful outcomes of my own institution bodes well for our future, why might it not bode just as well when the A levels and GCSE change to become more academic, tougher and rigorous?

As a very experienced graduate teacher whose career commenced teaching O Levels and A levels, all those reforms that brought to life the GCSE and A levels of the 2000s took place to ensure that children from whatever background could engage with the subject, to ensure that the process tested what they knew, understood and could do, against a finite and observable set of performance criteria. It was and even now still remains essential that children can talk about their work, present and share outcomes that might not be correct, be challenged for their views and enjoy that collaborative process that marks out the best of classroom practice. It is utter folly that English GCSE for the future is no longer to include speaking and listening. Before long, I can only presume we’ll see that disappear from the Modern Foreign Languages bundle too, returning the study of French at 16 to that of a classical language such as Latin. I jest. Probably. The point is that if the only way to assess a child’s academic performance is to be through a terminal written exam, then the explicit knowledge and skills that individually define the arts, humanities, languages, sciences and technologies will wither.

Now what the GCSEs gave pupils before coursework was struck off (because of its effect on grade inflation) were opportunities to show what they knew and could do at length. Actually as I write, my craft design technology students at school are just completing their coursework projects, each with a visible piece of furniture to take home and keep. I am lucky that our school employs teachers who keep the workshops open over the Easter break, not for the benefits of exam results but for the realisation of their coursework projects. Long after the grade for D&T is forgotten, the family home will have a major memento of a task well done.

My biggest fears are for the narrowing of the curriculum now between age 11 and 14, because of the decision this country has made to promote a more academic English, Maths, Science, Russell Group subject focussed GCSE programme at the expense of the practical and vocational. Over the past 4 years, we have all had to dedicate more time to Double English, Double Maths, Triple Science, an MFL, plus Geography or History. In the vast majority of the schools around my own, I see GCSE choices being made in Y8 for a Y9 start, which of course means a further reduction in the teaching of the creative and practical subjects as part of the curriculum and the inevitable sidelining of those specialist teachers in this area. There is some kind of vain hope that these skills are acquired at primary school and can resurface post A level once children have gained their academic rigour (whatever that is to be) at secondary school.

I am also very afraid that the narrowing effect of a 2 year A level programme, without the AS buffer half way through. The last thing one wants to find is that we return to the pre 1990s A level disaster of students trapped in a 2 year A level programme without  a chance to ship out and move sideways. The opportunity to  study 5 subjects for one year before moving to 2 or 3 as A2 for the second has been a major success throughout the country. In addition to permitting flexibility, it has also ensured a focus for examination at the end of Y12 (rather than see Y12 as a year ‘off’). I don’t think any of us liked the resit January of Y13 culture, except of course the students who were able to upgrade, but the current position of resitting at end of Y13 works well. The new arrangements, disconnecting AS from A level are regarded as unsatisfactory by University admissions tutors up and down the land, most notably  at Cambridge; Universities share with schools an understanding that the best predictor of A level success is AS, not the underlying GCSE results at age 16.

To conclude, from my own school’s evidence, not only have GCSEs and A levels served us well, but movement into employment or undergaduate studies has worked efficiently. The vast majority of our graduates have worked through their University years without taking an extra year of more, and have then moved on into effective employment afterwards. In short, the current pick and mix of subject, style, vocational and academic has not made square pegs for round holes, but generally shaped people for a future for which they have many skills and talents to bring to bear. Parents have had to take on debt to fund the children through my school, and students further debt for their graduate qualifications, Both seem to feel that the sacrifice has been worthwhile, given the very good fit they have for a hopeful and successful future. And therein lies the rub, because the new hair shirt on its way is beginning to hurt people quite badly, Strapped to the wheel of relentless target learn-and-achieve, children will not learn how to know themselves through their school years and become comfortable with those insights. Adolescent mental health problems are already growing apace, and the most conformist of children the most likely to suffer, self-harm and worse. Reports from 2011 onwards highlight this as a serious issue, not just for children but for those who teach.

I believe I run a great school, and I am certainly not prepared to let the baby go with the bathwater. But the relentless change in the country, the removal of core work I hold dear to the educational mission I serve from the nation’s curriculum is going to let us down very badly in the future. At least David Laws, Minister of State for Schools has it right when he calls now for a period of stability in education. I’ll watch closely, but fear that for many, the stability they will be offered does not include the hands-on education that makes the difference.


About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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