Students deserve more than ‘crippling simplicity’

Why independent schools are rebelling against the UK government’s dumbed-down national exams.

David Perks

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Manchester Grammar, one of the leading independent schools in England, announced last week that it would be the first school to stop putting its students forward for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) altogether. Its decision, made in response to the latest reforms of the GCSE examinations, has rocked an already fragile schools examination system.

Senior figures in education are now seriously calling for an end to national testing at 16, the age when students normally take their GCSEs. In October, the government pulled the plug on national tests at age 13 in all secondary schools after an administrative cock-up meant last summer’s papers were made virtually worthless. But the disintegration of trust in school testing is just a symptom of a deeper problem. Schools have simply given up on educating an increasing number of pupils.

According to Christopher Ray, the high master of Manchester Grammar, the school’s decision was based on the view that the new GCSEs ‘will present even less of a challenge to the more able candidates than at present’ (1). Tony Little, headmaster of Eton College, joined the chorus against the new qualifications, saying bright children were being asked to ‘wrestle with questions of crippling simplicity’ (2). Physics GCSE papers, supposedly the harder option amongst the suite of science GCSEs on offer, now give all the equations needed on the front of the paper or, as in the case of one examining board, put the equations in the question to be answered. It seems there is a competition to see which examination board can make their papers most ‘accessible’.

The main change to GCSE examinations, to be introduced in September 2009, is the introduction of a mandatory modular structure in which modules can be sat more than once to improve a pupil’s grade before cashing in the results to produce a qualification. Taken with the introduction of supervised in-class projects designed to replace coursework, the changes represent a dramatically altered assessment scheme for many subjects. Perversely, even though coursework was replaced after concerns about plagiarism and buying scripts over the internet, the introduction of a modular system is encouraging nothing less than officially sanctioned cheating.

This has become too much for some independent schools to stomach. We have already seen a number of schools pull out of A-levels in favour of the International Baccalaureate for 16- to 18-year-olds. Now there is a move to replace GCSEs with the less-regulated International GCSE. This qualification boasts no coursework and a linear examination to be sat at the end of the two-year course. The government has refused to sanction state schools from entering pupils for this examination.

Anthony Seldon, the newly appointed professor of education at the College of Teachers, is also critical of the government’s testing regime for pupils, but from a different perspective. He believes that the government’s obsession with testing betrays a ‘lack of trust – of schools, heads and teachers’. He goes on to explain that ‘assessment, by testing and exams, has come to determine and drive the curriculum, and right and wrong answers – facts – have come to dominate exams’ (3).

Actually, it is not an obsession with facts that is driving the assessment system. The paradox is that the more that examinations have been emptied of their content, the more they have become exercises in rote learning. In science, formal knowledge of the subject has been edged out by notions such as ‘how science works’. Examining this in short module tests becomes an exercise in learning the accepted answers. Despite the intention to examine high-order critical thinking, the result is even cruder rote learning.

Seldon portrays modern educationalists as latter-day versions of Dickens’s creation Thomas Gradgrind, who wanted children to be ‘filled full of facts’ like ‘little pitchers’ (4). However, what Seldon misses is that Dickens implied that education should be about more than learning facts. Today’s schools find it hard to deliver any facts worth knowing.

Worse still, the modern-day philistines believe that education should be about personalised learning with a curriculum suited to the needs of the individual. What this amounts to is reducing the education of pupils who look like they might not manage a ‘C’ grade to no more than a handful of core subjects. The aim is to drive up their grades in these few subjects and help the school hit the target for the number of pupils achieving five grades of ‘C’ or better. In fact, there is now open competition amongst schools to find other less academic qualifications, such as the vocational BTEC courses, which could replace GCSEs for these pupils while being treated as equivalent to GCSE. Passes in BTEC and other courses can then be counted towards the government target without the need for sitting a formal examination.

You can almost forgive the high master of Manchester Grammar for saying that the new GCSEs ‘will be a good answer for very many boys and girls, but not for our boys’. But the truth is that no one in education now believes that all pupils deserve a good academic education. We are systematically denying many more pupils a good education in the name of proving that schools have made the grade.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

David Perks argued that the new primary school curriculum was simply promoting pieties, criticised the idea of teaching ‘thinking skills’, and suggested we teach science for its own sake. Neil Davenport showed how cookery in schools has been reduced to obesity scares and food panics. Kevin Rooney described citizenship education as an attempt to make children conform. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Top private school dumps ‘too easy’ GCSEs, Guardian, 4 March 2009

(2) Bright pupils ‘agonising’ over simple questions, says Eton head, Daily Telegraph, 4 March 2009

(3) Seldon calls for exam revolution in UK schools, Guardian, 9 March 2009

(4) Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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