Schooling drivers

A GCSE in how to ride a moped? It might be funny if it wasn't real.

Timandra Harkness
Writer

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It’s a well-known educational technique: motivate the unmotivated by giving them something to do that they’re good at. Then once they start achieving in that arena, they’re more likely to give harder subjects a try.

So as I look out my window at the nightly parade of kids recklessly hurtling about on their scooters, I wonder whether giving them a GCSE in their impressive, if misused, riding skills would be a good thing.

But somebody’s beat me to it. Already in Northern Ireland you can already take GCSE Motor Vehicle and Road User (MV & RU) Studies (1). Twenty percent of marks are for a practical test in moped riding, a further 20 percent for an investigative study, and the rest for exam questions on topics like ‘motor vehicle technology’, The Highway Code, and pollution.

The Motorcycle Industry Association (MCI), among others, is keen to get it approved for schools throughout the UK, aware of the high price of so many inexperienced young riders. ‘Motoring casualties are a problem and this should be a vital step in the fight to get figures down’, said MCI chief executive Mark Foster. Currently, only the related Certificate of Educational Achievement, aimed at children deemed incapable of getting a GCSE (50 percent of marks depend on riding skills), is nationally approved by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

Trevor Lord teaches both courses at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire. An ex-maths teacher, he admits the MV & RU Studies GCSE is easier than his old subject, but thinks the standard is comparable to subjects like CDT. In fact, he finds the independent thought required for the investigative study more challenging than it is on some other subjects.

Lord also rejects worries expressed by the likes of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), that teaching 15- and 16-year-olds to ride (or, at Gaydon, to drive a car) can encourage them to venture on the road illegally, and before they have the maturity to be safe. Without denying that some kids will drive underage, Lord reckons that, on balance, young people will be safer and more responsible: ‘Their behaviour and self-confidence improves, and there’s a noticeable difference in their attitude to bad driving.’

ROSPA wants reassurance that the syllabus ‘focuses on knowledge and attitude, not just vehicle driving skills’. It needn’t fret – there is a lot of emphasis in the syllabus on having the right attitude: ‘The overall aim…is to develop better informed and more responsible road users.’ The syllabus is a curious mixture of the austerely practical (‘correlation of depreciation and age of vehicle’…’purpose and basic principles of coil spring, leaf spring and torsion bar suspension systems’) and the socially aware (‘noise: damage to hearing, annoyance to hospital patients and others living near busy roads’…’effects of emotional disturbance on road-user behaviour…premenstrual tension’). ‘It was originally put together as a road safety subject’, says Lord. And it shows.

It feels churlish to take issue with this GCSE just because you can get a fifth of the marks by riding a scooter around cones in the schoolyard. The standard of the practical test is at least equal to the off-road part of the CBT (which you’d still have to take before you can ride so much as a moped with L-plates on the road) and it’s marked far more rigorously. Then again, most people can pass a CBT from scratch – including the road ride – in a single day. Even I did it in two. Which would bring the whole GCSE in at just five days’ work.

It’s an appealing idea, of course, that some of the young Evel Knievels who race around my road at night might be a bit safer on wheels, and that fewer of the annoying little sods will be scraped off the tarmac to break their parents’ hearts.

But there is something a bit sad about the idea of a GCSE in getting a moped. When I was a teenager, passing a driving test and getting a car or a motorbike was a mark of growing up. Getting a tax disc and wiping round the distributor cap on damp mornings were things you learned for yourself, not part of your homework.

Yet the Road User and Motor Vehicle Studies GCSE can’t be written off as totally brainless. The exam papers, as well as being a thorough preparation for all aspects of vehicle ownership (down to calculating the APR on your finance deal), require the use of maths, engineering, geography, history, physiology and law. I can see that ‘motoring mathematics’ is still mathematics, even when you pander to the motormania of teenage boys (and the odd girl).

But how far should we go to smuggle hard subjects into the minds of disaffected yoof? Perhaps it’s not ‘dumbing down’ to bring the academic standard to the student, instead of pushing the student to hit the standard, but it’s certainly ‘dumbing across’ – and it’s done at the cost of narrowing horizons.

If we thought about it long enough, most subjects could probably be repackaged as things that teenagers like to do outside school. But if they’re not going to learn things that don’t immediately seem ‘relevant’ in school, where will they do it? Education is supposed to lead us forth to things outside our own experience, not buffer up our self-esteem by assuring us that our everyday lives are as demanding as any GCSE.

Hideous memories of my NVQ teaching days, when I was supposed to assess a student’s ladder-carrying ability, come creeping back. Please, can we stop these teen-friendly exams, before watching soaps is offered as an A-level in cultural studies? What do you mean, it’s too late?

Read on:

spiked-issues: Education

(1) See the GCSE syllabus for Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies

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