GCSEs

I’m pleased to report that we have officially survived the 2018 GCSE Season here at Team He-Total.

I’m not going to lie, it’s been hard going.  Poor Youngest Daughter has had many demons to battle on top of her exams and it’s been an emotionally draining month for all of us, but I’m proud of the way she’s faced the exams down and has stoically carried on even though she’s been convinced that she’ll do really badly

I’m so old that I did O Levels, but I also had a kind of fatalistic certainty that I would fail everything and entered the exam room as if I was approaching the scaffold.  My Chemistry exams were particularly horrific – I stared at the first paper wondering if it was actually written in English, I then completed the second, 60 minute, multiple choice paper, with over 30 minutes to spare, having just shaded in random dots, because I didn’t have a clue what any of the answers were.  In the end I passed my O Levels (apart from Chemistry –  unsurprisingly – I failed that one), but all in all it was a horrible experience and one I’m glad I’ll never have to repeat.  However, at least I knew that to progress on to my A Levels, I just had to pass the subjects I wanted to take at O Level.  At that stage I had no concrete plans for what I wanted to do after I’d left school.  I knew I loved English and that I’d maybe like to look at a degree in that but it was all a bit vague.  O Levels were just the end of one stage of education.  I was far more interested in what was coming next.  My O Levels were pretty unexceptional, I got three A’s, one B and three Cs (no A*s in those days), but it didn’t matter, the aim was just to pass them, so that I could move on to study the subjects I loved.

These days, at least from my experience with my children, kids seem to be expected to think of their GCSEs as the beginning of their adult life and career.  At as young as 13 they are expected to plan their GCSE choices with their future A Levels, potential degree, and possible career in mind.  They’re acutely aware of the grades they need to get in order to take the subjects they want to take at A Level or to progress to apprenticeships or other qualifications.  Not only that, but a GCSE pass grade is often no longer enough to progress onto A Levels: with schools and colleges under increasing pressure re pass-marks many now require students to gain top marks at a GCSE in order to qualify to do the A Level.  Students also now learn how to ‘write to the exam paper’ to ensure they get the maximum marks possible.  Maybe my schooling was lacking, maybe I missed something, but when I was 16 I didn’t have a clue how to get the maximum marks on an exam paper.  I knew each question was worth a certain number of marks and I answered it as best I could (spending more time on the large mark questions and less on the lower mark questions), but I had no real idea how to manipulate my answer for maximum marks.  It feels like my kids have mark schemes and grade boundaries tattooed on their brains.

Of course, unlike me who sat established exams that had been around for years, Youngest Daughter’s year group are sitting their GCSEs in the Post-Govian wasteland of recent GCSE reforms.  In my day a ‘C’ was a mark that indicated you had passed and could move (along with the higher achievers) onto the next stage. C is average – a C used to indicate that students had competence in and a solid understanding of the subject, even if they didn’t excel at it, like the A and B achieving students.  A C was a pass, it was a good thing.  But now it seems that average (which by its very nature suggests the majority of the population) is no longer good enough.  The divisive new grading system – grades  1-9, where 1 is the lowest and 9 is the highest – is also harbouring two pernicious little grades right in the middle; a 4 which is a ‘low C’ and a 5 which is a ‘high C’.  Not only that, the new system is top-heavy.  The top three grades, 7-9, are all equivalent to A grades – with 7 being roughly an A, and 8-9 equating to an A* and (I can only presume), an A**.  This means that if the remaining 6 grades equate to B-E grades, meaning that a grade 4, a C, is in the lower section of the gradings and only a 5, a ‘good’ C, is in the middle.  This new system is actually attempting to split average – the majority of the population – into good and bad, into acceptable and unacceptable.

Whilst just last year Youngest Daughter would have achieved a perfectly acceptable bunch of across the board Cs which would show she’d understood and learned all of her subjects well enough to pass into the next stage of her education, she will now receive a mixed bag of 4s and 5s.  Whereas last year, qualifying for most A Levels required a C, now only a minimum grade of 5 is acceptable.  Whereas a year ago she would have felt she’d accomplished something good with eight passes, now she will feel she’s failed if some of those passes aren’t ‘good’ passes.

On top of that, the coursework component for most GCSEs has now been removed, making nearly all of them purely exam based.  They were all exam based in my day – which was great for people who were good at exams, but deeply unfair for those who weren’t.  When they changed O Levels and CSEs into GCSEs a course-work element was introduced to the qualification.  Funnily enough when this happened, the pass rate started to rise and more people got higher grades.  Do you know why this was?  It was because it was fairer.  Exams have a place and are great for testing in certain circumstances, but when we’re testing 16 year old kids on what they’ve learned from their education so far surely we need to be looking at their all-round ability?  Surely we should also be testing what they can do on a day-to-day basis, not just how they perform under pressure in an exam room?    Maybe over the years the coursework element of the GCSE became open to exploitation, and was used to push the grades up, but surely the answer to this was to tighten up the rules on coursework, not to remove it altogether?  I also understand the desire to ensure that the examination element of  GCSEs is properly challenging and that our examination system needs to be designed to compete on the world stage, but biasing the system in favour of the kids who are good at exams doesn’t strike me as the right way to go about it.  Surely there’s a way to ensure that modern GCSEs reflect everything a 16 year old can do – both in the classroom and in the exam room?

In the years when the GCSE pass-marks were rising, it must have been soul-destroying for all those kids, who had worked their guts out, to be sneered at, by the press and Government opposition alike, and told that their GCSEs were dumbed-down and worthless.  If it was bad then, imagine how awful it now is for the kids who are taking their GCSEs without having any past papers to work on, without many having completed all of the material on the new syllabuses (study leave was cancelled at Youngest Daughter’s school, and many others, to give the teachers a fighting chance to cover everything), knowing that this year’s exams will be more harshly marked to prove how ‘rigorous’ they are and understanding that being solidly average at a subject is no longer considered an acceptable pass.

And this is the so-called ‘snowflake’ generation?  This is the generation that people have the temerity to mock because they apparently suffer from more mental health problems than their generation did?  Frankly, I think the generations before them would have melted under the pressure long before they even reached the exam room.

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