Politicians love to talk about making difficult decisions. The Conservatives ran in 2010 as the party of ‘tough decisions.’ However, despite having spectacularly bungled the easy decisions – notably on fiscal policy (more infrastructure spending needed) and controlling immigration (don’t), they addressed few of the problems to which there really isn’t a clear right answer. That is, until last weekend, when Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that GCSEs were going to be scrapped.
Education is always a political grey area, where there are no magic bullets, and nowhere is that more clear than in exams policy. As someone who has been through the system pretty recently, I can attest that the GCSE is an awful way to test 16-year-olds. There are two main issues. The first is that the exams too often reward learning how to phrase your answer in order to best fit the mark scheme and, rather than testing real knowledge and understanding. Things are improving, though, and some courses are better than others.
The more severe and intractable problem is that GCSEs are aimed at giving a basic grounding to the median student. The brightest pupils get very little out of two years of make-work exam practice, and syllabuses fail to adequately stretch them. Take the Biology, Chemistry and Physics GCSEs I did eighteen months ago. Sciences are not my forte, I did virtually no work for three years, I didn’t do much meaningful revision either, and I went into my physics paper barely understanding electricity or magnetism. Many of my friends are much more scientifically gifted than I am, and they also worked a lot harder. They all ended up with the same three A* grades I did. This is what the government is trying to fix – the newly announced EBacc, promptly dubbed ‘Gove-levels’ in the Education Secretary's honour, will aim to award the top grade to only 10% of pupils, raising standards, differentiating the exceptional from the merely good and helping to engage the most able kids in a reformed curriculum.
So far so good. But the other effect of raising standards is to exacerbate the most serious flaw GCSEs have – they are a complete waste of time for a huge number of the less academically inclined. Already, far too many people are leaving school with very little to show for their years of study. The cost of making Gove-levels better suited to the most able pupils is to spectacularly screw over the same people who struggle most under the current broken system.
Of course, there is a way to make the smartest 16-year-olds fulfil their potential, while still making sure you actually teach something to those at the other end of the distribution. A two-tier system, like the old O-Levels and CSEs, would mean fewer people being forced to sit an unsuitable exam. Ostensibly, it seems like a fairly good idea. Much of the current GCSE maths syllabus is only useful from an academic perspective, whereas a second tier of exams might teach to a high standard the practical skills which are being neglected under the current regime. Everyone would come away from public education with at least some acknowledgement that what they did was worthwhile. And yet the very idea of a two-tier system is abhorrent to many people, and with good reason. There’s something very wrong about writing off a kid’s academic potential at the age of fourteen. There are going to be some people who end up suffering because they’re in the wrong half of a two-speed system. It divides kids into distinct groupings, which can’t be good for social cohesion. And if soft-hearted policymakers refuse to fail anyone, many argue, what’s the point in taking exams at all?
This is why I make the point that education reform presents a genuinely tough decision. The current system is untenable. It’s not clear whether Gove’s reforms will address the biggest problems with the education system, which are at the bottom rather than at the top end. But all of the choices are really bad, and a two-tier system might be the worst of the lot. At the end of the day, there’s only so much the exam system can do if the government isn’t prepared to invest more money in schemes like paying teachers more, extending the school day or implementing a US-style voucher system.
Note: I’ve focused mostly on course content and difficulty here, because that’s what I think the most influential part of the reforms will be. The replacement of piecemeal retake-friendly modules, with single final three-hour exams, is a big and significant change, though. While the module system is flawed, a gruelling final exam has its own problems. What about the people who happen to screw up on the day? What about the people who don’t test well under deliberately adverse conditions? It seems to run counter to the idea that the focus will be less on exam technique and more on genuine knowledge and aptitude. Just because many Conservatives look back on the arbitrary cruelty of the school system they themselves went through with a kind of nostalgic pride, doesn’t mean that we should be putting kids today through it.