What’s the worth of a GCSE?

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The following is a reprint of my article in the local newspaper – The Argus.

In 2010 education secretary Michael Gove suddenly introduced a list of GCSE subjects to make up a new qualification, the English Baccalaureate. To get it you need 5 grades A*-C, but not from any old GCSE. For an E-Bacc you need English, maths, a language, two sciences and either history or geography. It doesn’t include any vocational subjects, technology, arts or RE.

Using the E-Bacc to judge schools and pupils now is unfair. When most of the children started their exam courses it didn’t exist. Some can’t achieve it as they haven’t studied the right subjects, languages, for example, were optional, not compulsory.

At the heart of the change in how we will judge our schools and pupils in the future are some interesting questions. Exactly what subjects are the most ‘important’? Can we really compare vocational subjects with more academic ones? Why exclude technology, art, music or even RE from the list? Bizarrely, these questions hit home while I was having a new shower installed.

I don’t do DIY. My advice? Never let an academic do DIY. I may lecture at a university, write books, give talks even, but I can’t saw wood in a straight line, put plaster on a wall or get a smooth paint finish. If it’s DIY, I ‘DI don’t’, I reach for the ‘phone and call in a professional. The plumber I hired can do the pipe-work, the associated electrics, even tiling and plaster work. Who is to say that his professional expertise and vocational qualifications are less important than my qualified teacher status? We are both experts in different fields. I respect his knowledge and skills. In education respect for the vocational is less obvious and it’s less easy to equate the vocational and the academic when it comes to exam results.

Is a physics GCSE worth more than music; does music have more worth than technology? Which subjects should we use to judge the quality of education our children receive? After you accept English and mathematics as ‘essentials’, it gets fuzzy. Of course children should leave school being able to read, write and do basic mathematics. But whether they do well in other subjects can sometimes be a matter of interest or, in the case of art and music, an inherent ability (in my case a lack of ability in woodwork and metalwork was very evident, very early and I was advised to do drama).

It also puzzles me why children have to do so many subjects. Years ago, the idea of doing ten different subjects was absurd. I took eight O levels, though I didn’t do history or geography, followed by three A levels. I didn’t do very well in languages (French CSE grade two, not even worth an A*-C GCSE). No E-bacc for me, but I did well in the sciences.

Are we asking too much of our children to complete up to 10 different subjects at GCSE, five AS levels then three or four A levels? What would be the harm in doing fewer qualifications, but allowing children to develop a better, deeper understanding of the ones they do and take a course in study skills and critical thinking?

If a child has a real talent for art and music, or a passion for understanding the various world religions, why should we steer them away from studying these just to gain an E-Bacc?   If they can craft wood or work metal and show a flair for practical, vocational subjects, surely this should be as valued as interpreting the works of Shakespeare, knowing major UK rivers, or naming the six wives of Henry the Eighth? If children struggle with their English and maths, perhaps concentrating on those skills is better than demanding a good history grade to make up a contrived suite of qualifications for an E-Bacc.

I can see that a broad education is worthwhile, but education isn’t just what happens in school, it’s also about what happens throughout your life. The skills to acquire an education must come from schooling. Of these, the ability to read fluently, write coherently and do basic mathematics is vital, followed by study skills and critical thinking. An important job for a teacher is recognising any skill, talent or passion a child may have for a subject, then encouraging them to study it. If we want some breadth, rather than force-feed each subject to every child, we should consider general humanities or science courses that deliver an understanding and appreciation of them. If they have study skills, it will help them learn about these subjects in later life.

Although I didn’t do history, I love the history of science. I’ve learned to appreciate it. Because of my good basic education, I have the skills to learn about history. If I’d been forced to do it against my will at 14, perhaps I would never have found a passion for it.

Let’s prepare children for lifelong learning, rather than try and force a life’s worth of learning into them at too young an age.

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