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JOHN HUMPRHYS: Scrap GCSEs for this year? No, we should scrap them FOR EVER 

Never let a good crisis go to waste. It was Winston Churchill who made that saying famous. He was speaking in 1940 when the future of the nation was at stake.

Even Covid can’t compete with that. But what we do face today is a crisis in education and, no, it has not been created by shutting down our schools.

When the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this week that teachers will have almost complete control over deciding exam grades this summer, it was seen as an emergency measure. Pretty soon, Covid willing, things will be back to normal.

That’s great if ‘normal’ means children going to school — but not so great if we continue to treat schools as exam factories.

When the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this week that teachers will have almost complete control over deciding exam grades this summer, it was seen as an emergency measure. Pretty soon, Covid willing, things will be back to normal (stock image)

Last year’s exam season ended in fiasco — thanks to the capricious god Algorithm, who was fed the wrong statistics. The more humble god, Fairness, pulled rank on the young upstart and ruled that schools should just get on with things as best they could without the divine sanction of exam grades. The world did not fall apart.

No one seems quite sure yet how the latest approach will work. The Tory chairman of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, warns of a ‘Wild West’ in grade inflation which could ‘damage children’s life chances’.

It’s true that it will not deliver a standardised national assessment. That can come only with external examiners marking papers to a nationally applied measure. But that should not be the holy grail.

Of course, exams will always have their place in any sensible system of education. They impose an element of structure and discipline and are clearly one measure of aptitude. We shall always need A-levels, or something similar, to divide the academic sheep from the goats. But can someone please tell me why we need GCSEs?

They seemed a good idea back in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher brought in the Education Reform Act. She wanted schools to be more competitive and parents to have more choice. But first, of course, there had to be a way of measuring one school against another. The answer was testing.

Last year¿s exam season ended in fiasco ¿ thanks to the capricious god Algorithm, who was fed the wrong statistics (stock image)

Last year’s exam season ended in fiasco — thanks to the capricious god Algorithm, who was fed the wrong statistics (stock image)

A national curriculum was introduced with ‘key stages’ and children were to be tested at every one of them. Testing at age seven, 11 and 14 and, of course, GCSEs. The results were to be published. The tests became more than a tool to assess a child’s ability. They marked a significant shift in the relationship between schools and their pupils. Instead of schools existing to serve pupils, it seemed all too often that pupils were there to serve schools.

Every school wanted to rise up the new league tables. How else could they attract the best and the brightest? Exams had always been used to assess a child’s ability. Now they became the be-all and end-all for every secondary school head teacher in the land.

The phrase ‘teaching to the test’ entered the lexicon. Many teachers see no harm in this. Children go to school to gain an education, right? The best way to prove that it’s working is to test them, right?

Wrong.

'We shall always need A-levels, or something similar, to divide the academic sheep from the goats. But can someone please tell me why we need GCSEs?' John Humphrys said (stock image)

‘We shall always need A-levels, or something similar, to divide the academic sheep from the goats. But can someone please tell me why we need GCSEs?’ John Humphrys said (stock image)

It is just one of the ways to test them. Or, rather, to test some of them. And it is seriously flawed. Take those children who have an enquiring mind — surely the most basic test of that elusive quality ‘intelligence’ — yet are incapable of concentrating in the classroom and taking notes which they will regurgitate when the exam paper is set under their noses. They are victims of the test tyranny.

And let’s dispense with the nonsense that they must be ‘suffering’ from ADHD or whatever the latest fashionable diagnosis is. If they really are ‘suffering’ from anything, it is more likely to be the disabling poverty of a home where no one has ever picked up a book, or teachers who simply cannot communicate with them. Or perhaps, in the worst case, who care only about the ‘bright’ kids guaranteed to do well in the exams.

But it’s not always — or even often — the teachers’ fault. One told me she had to instruct her pupils to include at least one adverb in every paragraph of their essays because that’s what the examiners demanded. Just like her pupils, her task was to follow the rules.

Another said she felt she had become a ‘processor’ of education. She, her pupils and even the school itself, had become units in an education production line. Many parents would agree. One, the mother of a bright and lively 13-year-old girl, told me about her experience at her school’s parents’ evening. She was met by a teacher with a spreadsheet.

The mother wanted to talk about a child. The teacher wanted to talk about a consumer. All that mattered was how he might get her grades up from an average ‘B’ to an average ‘A’ by the time GCSEs came around.

We wise owls lark around 

Vindication has finally arrived for me and my fellow larks. We tend to be mocked because we are the ones to leave the party early and stifle the odd yawn as 10pm approaches.

But science has now proven what we have long suspected. We are superior to night owls in almost every respect. We are more likely to succeed at work, less likely to be unemployed and even more likely to be happily married.

I confess I did not consciously choose larkdom. When I bought a dairy farm 40 years ago, I failed to factor in having to milk the cows before the tanker arrived. It meant getting up at 5.30am. And that was a lie-in compared with 33 years of rising at 3.30am for the Today programme.

Now I happily rise at six and count my blessings. I have the park to myself for my morning jog. Silence except for the birds.

And this morning was bliss. The sun rose as the moon sank towards the horizon. Not any old moon. The ‘snow moon’. Heart-stoppingly beautiful. It will still be beautiful tonight.

See it for yourself. Or, better still, get up with the lark.

She tried to explain that her child was simply becoming bored, hence her lack of attention and relatively poor performance. He looked puzzled.

A shocking report was published earlier this week. Ten thousand young people included in the Millennium Cohort Study were asked if they had ‘deliberately hurt yourself by the age of 17 on purpose in an attempt to end your life’. About one in 14 said they had.

One of the stresses on them was, inevitably, social media. The other was education. For ‘education’ perhaps we should substitute ‘exams’.

Sceptics will say: so what’s new? Kids have never liked exams. That’s not entirely true — we can all remember the swots who revelled in the chance to show their knowledge — but it misses the crucial point. GCSEs are pointless.

There’s certainly an argument for keeping tests for literacy and numeracy. But let’s stop judging schools by their exam results and how many of their pupils go to university. Great teachers should be honoured for bringing out the best in every child. Some children have academic ability. Some don’t. Society needs both.

Dumping GCSEs would liberate pupils and teachers. They could both get back to what education should be about: stimulating and training young minds through adventure, discovery and, above all, the inspiration that comes from allowing a teacher to decide how to teach and developing a relationship with their pupils.

It is not a production line.

So let’s welcome the school gates opening again — but let’s halt the treadmill of unnecessary, soul-destroying and ultimately education-destroying exams.


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