Scrapping dysfunctional GCSEs will return rigour to British classrooms

CONSIDERING the howls of outrage that greeted this year’s GCSE results, the reaction to Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate Certificate has been surprisingly muted. This is not altogether surprising: GCSEs are corrupt and corrupting, and it’s hard to find a teacher with anything good to say about them.

Under New Labour, ministers showed little evidence that they cared what was taught. So long as exam results went up by leaps and bounds, everyone was happy. Almost every year, they rolled out some new wheeze, designed to make tests more “accessible”.

Despite most educational theorists having a pathological aversion to competition, they were happy to tolerate three exam boards, locked in a struggle to see who could produce the most vapid exams.

They welcomed vocational alternatives – like the qualification in hairdressing. National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), often referred to as “No Value Qualifications”, were followed by BTECs. Many were equivalent to four GCSEs, and they were almost all coursework. They were the “get out of jail free” card for embattled heads.

Coursework – originally introduced to suit the needs of exam-phobic pupils – allowed apathetic pupils to achieve acceptable grades. Our children are bright enough to understand that good grades mean a lot more to teachers and parents, who generally do all the work. Heads, keen to improve their standing in the league tables, employed newly qualified teachers on minimum salaries just to put pupils’ coursework together.

Modular exams allow endless resits. Even worse, they encourage a “fireand- forget” approach to teaching and learning. School timetables are often thrown into chaos, with pupils sitting exams when they are judged capable of getting the all-important C grade.

As with all targets, the GCSE benchmark of five A to C grades serves mostly to divert huge resources to those just shy of the target, much to the detriment of the most and least able children. It also encourages schools to enter borderline pupils for easier exams. Disadvantaged children who, with good teaching, would be capable of serious academic study are shunted into a dead-end.

One of the more curious charges laid against GCSEs is that they encourage rote learning. But the phrase signifies little more than teaching something so that it can reliably be recalled at a later date.

However, our GCSEs don’t actually test knowledge or understanding. Trainee teachers are told that rote learning is one of the worst forms of child abuse. They are much more like IQ tests. In the rarefied world of education theory, it is commonly believed that the aim of education is to strengthen the mind, rather than to fill it – hence, the focus on de-contextualised “critical thinking”. As Gove knows, this is nonsense: if you are bereft of factual knowledge and ignorant of the world of ideas – the accumulated intellectual heritage of humanity – your thinking will be very shallow.

It is, however, possible to pass an IQ test if you have all the questions and answers in advance. And this is pretty much what happens. These little snippets will not make you any wiser, but they will help promote the careers of ambitious educators and politicians.

I am sure that Gove knows that simply changing an exam’s name won’t make it any more rigorous. The real fight for the curriculum has barely begun. The usual suspects can be counted on to defend New Labour’s discredited legacy.

This is where it will get interesting. Although the jury is still out, the majority of secondary teachers will almost certainly view Gove’s structural reforms as an improvement. They could hardly be worse. In education, there is a growing divide between people who actually teach and the swollen ranks of management.

Most teachers in England actually want to teach. The basic human instinct to pass on one’s knowledge cannot be extinguished by teacher training courses. But if Gove wants his reforms to take root, he will have to circumvent the ranks of management and appeal to the poor soul at the chalkface. For better or worse, they are the only ones who can lift our children out of the mire devised by previous governments’ cynical reforms.

Tom Burkard is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and a visiting professor of education policy at the University of Derby. He is co-author, with Captain Ak Burki, of Something Can Be Done.