Monday, 17 September 2012

Twilight of the GCSEs; new balls, please

Not waving, but marking
Is anything much happening in the world of education? I've been finishing a book, so I guess someone would have told me if anything had ha-

Ah. Did someone order the Ragnarok? 

Michael Gove appears to have been inhabited by the demons of Legion. Rarely have I seen a politico in such a balls-out, damn-your-eyes-for-a-Christian mood. They call D-Cam Flashman? I see more of Tom Brown's dastardly polyglot nemesis in the eyes of our current SoS than in the countenance of our fey premier. I can imagine him, plotting in his hollowed out volcano underneath the Isle of Dogs, chuckling away with Anthony Seldon as they dip kettle chips into the tears of martyrs and wonder how they can annoy the Guardian any more. 'And then,' he'll say, wiping away the tears of mirth, 'And then we'll make them memorise the periodic table. CAN YOU IMAGINE THEIR FACES? AHAHAHAHAHAHAH.'

'Consultation?' he'll say in my Holodeck version of reality, 'Consultation? How's about this for consultation?' before wiping his undercarriage with the National Curriculum. 'I consulted my f*cking bollocks, how d'you like THEM apples?'

I don't think that Gove holds much truck with consultation. Perhaps you noticed? But, as others have pointed out, people only complain about consultative processes when they disagree with the outcome. The assumption is that consultation will come to the correct answer. If you have ever consulted anyone you will know that this is not inevitable. Also, from my limuted vantage point in my billionaire skyscraper you will know that there is as much consensus of opinion in education as there is in the Tower of Babel.

I won't weep at the final act of GCSEs. They're as fit for purpose as the Whisky-flavoured condoms in the bogs of the nightclub I used to run, that said in microprint on the back 'Not suitable as a barrier protection; novelty only.'

1. Module resits. This led to the practice of students knowing that, however badly they did, there was a safety net. But the safety net became a crutch; rather than a method for fixing students with bad days and personal issues, it became a snooze alarm. 'Five more minutes,' they thought. 'THEN I'll try really hard.' Take them away, and what you have is the examination equivalent of the last bus home, a vehicle that gets chased with the ardour of a pervert, when its eaerlier incarnations are ignored and undervalued.

2. Adios coursework and controlled assessments. Thank the stars; finally. There is no mechanism more liable to encourage the worst excesses of human nature, than the chance to craft an assessment with the help of others. Except as every teacher knows, the help often went far beyond help and became plagiarism. Cheating, in other words. Of course, most teachers are above that, but it's no secret that some weren't. To think otherwise is childish. There are teachers who would coach, coach, coach kids into pieces of work that only possessed a fraction of the student's DNA. That's one of the biggest scandals in education in the last few decades, and I include the GCSE English hoo-hah. Unfortunately, people often only complain about injustice when it disadvantages them.

3. Introducing a high stakes terminal exam. Yes, yes, and yes to this. There is very little that an exam cannot assess; knowledge, understanding, skills, whatever tickles you. People frowning on 'facts' as 'merely facts' make me wonder when we started to get so stupid. You can't understand anything without facts; knowledge only exists as knowledge OF something, understood in context. If you believe that they're second rate learning objectives because of, well, Google, then you have displayed the kind of stupidity that collapses civilisations.

Give kids an exam- of a manageable length- and watch them study for it. Exams are not impartial observers; they affect the outcome. Kids work for exams; here is wsidom. We should take advantage of that. Ask your average student if they work more or less hard when they know they have a test, and see what they say.

So actually, I'm pretty groovy with the whole Swan Song of GCSEs. They were soiled and sodden by one-dimensional league tables, until their whole purpose became to leap frog themselves every year, displaying the kind of linear, utopian annual growth that the pigs of Animal Farm could only dream of. Production, comrades, was constantly up. The regime goes from strength to strength.

Except it wasn't. Were kids getting smarter? No. No, they weren't. Were the exams getting easier. Oh God, yes, of course they were. Compare them. Just do it. Were schools pouring kids into over-equivalated vocational subjects that were worth far too much? Yes they were. Were exam boards pimping themselves as 'the easy one' like painted ladies in a port? Why, yes, we have them on camera. Both front benches agree on this.

What we get next might be very different. But what we had was a discredit to our profession, and any teacher who cares about children's education, and not merely league table power-ups, should be glad to see their interrogation and demise.

Cheerio, GCSEs. Don't let the door slam you on the ass when you leave.


  1. This bolg post is probably not going to be you most popular Sir. I agree with every word.

  2. Indeed.

    One of the mailing lists I'm on has received numerous wails of agony from anonymous teachers who are being pressurised by their HODs or SLTs to treat Controlled Assessments like coursework - mark drafts, provide 'frameworks' (i.e. everything but the actual wording) or simply teach the whole class how to answer the question. Coursework had become a scandal, but all the CAs have done is remove the locus of cheating from the parent to the teacher.

    Returning to a terminal exam as the only mode of qualifying will also help to lessen the achievement gap between girls and boys. I can already hear the shrieks of the snake-haired sisterhood...

  3. As I imagine you dancing with glee around this particular bonfire of the vanities, I must express my disappointment in you, of all people, falling for the invitation to chuck another can of petrol onto the flames. As we’re among friends, there's no need to rehearse here all the problems associated with GCSE, but you should ask yourself the question, 'Why were they so keen to dispense with O levels and bring in all this new-fangled coursework assessment stuff back in the 1980s?’. This is even more pertinent given that GCSE was brought under Thatcher’s regime, an era not noted for its progressive child-centred educational outlook. As the old Viet Nam ‘vets’ would say, ‘You weren’t there’, but there are still some of us old gits around who worked under the old O level system. You didn’t experience its divisiveness, separating kids into O level and CSE groups from Y9, the last minute cramming for exams (bright kids could just free-wheel for 2 years!), double entering students who were on borderlines, let alone the condemnation of half the cohort to the outer flames of CSE (I really could go on…...).

    So, consider for a moment a strange parallel universe where GCSE was never born. In this perfect world how would the ‘gold standard’ of O level have fared over the last few decades if it had been subjected to the pressures of league tables (as the new E-Bac will undoubtedly be in England)? Schools would have done their damndest to get the best results possible by such nefarious tactics as choosing the easiest exam board, they would ‘teach to the test’, and all the other aspects of so-called ‘gaming’ which have been criticised so heavily and so rightly in current exams (actually most of this happened anyway even without league tables). So, by this point in time, I suspect we would be discussing the ‘dumbing down’ of O levels instead. In other words, it’s not the GCSE exam itself which is at fault. The exams, the exam boards, the schools, the teachers, and (unfortunately for them) the kids have had to work in a system where the ‘tail’ of league tables has been wagging the poor dog senseless. For too long now everyone has been arguing about answers to the wrong questions.

  4. I see what you mean but the exams are at fault as they have become ever easier.

  5. I don't care if reformed exams are still called GCSEs or a new name. What is important is that they address the problems of current GCSEs and I guess they can also try and avoid the worst problems with the old OLevel also. It's a bit too defeatist to suggest its not worth reforming our current GCSEs because they themselves were a failed attempt at reform. Shall. Just give up then?

  6. Were you in a bad mood when you wrote this? 'How d'you like them apples?' I've plagued my husband on more than one viewing, what DOES that mean? His response: it's a guy thing. ;o) Yes, I DID actually READ the blog. It's admirable that you strive for the best in education...even if it is giving you a hernia ;o)

  7. Bill Hall, not all children are intellectually equal. That's not to say they aren't equally precious, valuable and entitled but it is something that needs to be acknowledged. Academic children did O levels. Those whose prior 9 years of performance had suggested they weren't up to it did CSE. What's the difference between that and doing Foundation or Higher GCSEs?

  8. "People frowning on 'facts' as 'merely facts' make me wonder when we started to get so stupid. You can't understand anything without facts"

    Aren't they frowning on them because facts are necessary but not sufficient? - possession of facts doesn't guarantee understanding, whereas understanding guarantees you have facts.