Monday, 17 September 2012

'New' GCSEs: an over-reaction?

Today's announcement of 'tougher' and 'harder' GCSEs is an almost completely disingenuous blast of mendacity.

The main elements are, firstly, replacing continuous assessment with end-of-course testing. And getting rid of almost all coursework, so that exams are the main way of measuring attainment.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Coursework, of course, has all sorts of problems. There is outright cheating around the edges of the system. More profoundly, teacher support and guidance can involve writing and re-writing continuous assessments, again and again and again. How many grey, enervating days have been spent re-working something that was a bit of a mess when it first turned up?

Neither is continuous assessment any sort of panacea. There is no doubt that some GCSEs (for instance in my own subject, History) have become too modular, too 'spotty' and too disaggreated from one another. So one moved from the Tudors to the Nazis via some history of science and medicine, without seeing much of the years in between.

But coursework was also innovative: a thoughtful reaction to a changing world. That's why it was brought in in (during the 1980s and 1990s) in the first place.And continuous assessment has definitely helped to lift attainment among groups that may not have the confidence or the traditions that help them attack the once-and-for-all highwire acts that exams represent.

Most worrying of all is the way in which these changes have been decided on and announced, in a stitch-up between the Coalition parties after the Liberal Democrats (quite rightly) objected to the absurd and anachronistic idea that there should be a two-tier exam system much like the old CSEs and O-Levels. Consultation? Public debate? Expert input? No thank you very much, says the Education Secretary, Michael Gove (above) - we'll just do what we want. The exact balance between final tests and ongoing benchmarks is a matter of legitimate controversy. The amount of coursework in each course (20 per cent? 40 per cent? 50 per cent?) must and should be re-assessed all the time.

But getting rid of both, in their entirety, reversing at a stroke thirty years of thought and practice? After years of making universities (for instance) bring in continuous assessment to match the school system? Overturning the expectations and the taught skills of young people coming up to that key age (and their parents)? I'm sorry, but this is just playing to the gallery.

And then there is the need to look at more fundamental questions. What is education actually for? Maybe we should have some form of testing at 14 and 18, now that staying on to that later date is going to become compulsory, rather than the increasingly-meaningless waymaker of 16? Shouldn't we address the concept of what knowledge and learning really are - rather than focusing on testing and examinations that reflect how much effort and practice parents and teachers put into the increasingly-desperate drive for educational attainment and differentiations? What should actually be in all these new exams?

All the rest is a sideshow. Sorry, but there you are.


  1. I was struck by this sentence in the Mail on Sunday's report: "Michael Gove is to herald an end to a quarter of a century of ‘dumbed-down’ exams this week when he abolishes GCSEs and brings back a tough new O-level style system." I wonder who could possibly have been prime minister a quarter of a century ago ...

  2. Couldn't agree more - school students and teachers both deserve a proper period of consultation and reflection on this rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the inevitable exam-result headlines.