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Primary Education News
News Letters: GCSE results and the unsustainable pressure on our children
Thursday will have brought mixed emotions for many parents and young people (Fall in GCSE grades blamed on school 'exam' factories, 23 August). Those without five A*-C grades may be (wrongly) believing that life is over and those with great results may be (wrongly) believing that life will now be wonderful. The belief, fostered by the educational establishment, that those with at least five passes have a magic entree to a meaningful and fulfilling life, and that others are somehow doomed, is nonsense. A couple of examples of an opposite picture might help.
Tim came to our alternative education college at age 14 after two years out of school. He showed a talent at drawing and two years later he took four GCSEs, gaining one C, two Ds and an E. He took his portfolio to the local further education college and they commented at interview that, as he had learned to manage his own learning, he was likely to be successful in college. This proved correct as he gained the prize for the best student and went on to university. After he graduated, his work for a hospital won an award for the best use of visual art in healthcare. He now has a very successful self-employed career and a growing reputation.
John came to us having been out of school for some years and he took just two GCSEs but managed to persuade the local sixth-form college to take him to study AS-levels. He is now at university having passed his three A-levels. And we have more examples like this.
The problem is that most schools are really bad at helping their students to explore options beyond 16. They often fail to work with each individual to help them to make good choices about how to progress and hence this country has the problem of young people not continuing their education. In 13 years, all our 16-year-old students have gone on to FE or sixth-form colleges. Some have impeccable GCSE passes but many don't. We believe that an educational institution should be judged more on its ability to prepare young people for life and not on exam passes.
The supposedly successful can also find problems. Many are shunted into the wrong courses just because they have good GCSE passes and then end up on the wrong degrees. This again occurs because there is an obsession with exam-passing to the detriment of real support for young people to help them to navigate a complex world and make good choices about the kind of life they want to lead.
Dr Ian Cunningham
Self Managed Learning College, Brighton
• The pressures and contradictions young people now face when they take their examinations have indeed become "irreconcilable" and "unsustainable" (Report, 21 August). The education system is now increasingly like trying to run up a downwards escalator where you have to work harder and harder simply to stand still. Also, facing an uncertain future, those youngsters that can will want to focus on qualifications identified as "high-status" by governments and top universities – while schools, worried about the next Ofsted visit, will always encourage them to do so, including entering them early, or for more than one exam board.
As a result, "tougher" GCSEs (and "tougher" A-levels for that matter) can only be made "tougher still" – regardless of whether the standard of work by students continues to rise – so as to ensure high-status qualifications remain just that. Rather than looking for "stability" by entering students for "international" tests, the qualification system can only be reformed by stopping the escalator itself. Why put youngsters through the current GCSE ordeal, when most will remain in full-time education anyway? Why not a general diploma at 18, which all can aspire to and which provides both a mandatory entitlement while allowing specialisation as students get older? With the examination system in danger of being in permanent crisis, there couldn't be a better time.
Dr Martin Allen
• I'd like to propose three further reasons (Editorial, 23 August) why this year's GCSE results are disappointing: 1) Local education authority advisory teams, whose main role was to support heads of department and classroom teachers in their work, have been virtually destroyed by the coalition; 2) Universities are being stripped of their teacher-training departments, whose traditional role was to educate students in the complexities of the learning process and prepare them to deal effectively with the challenges of life in the classroom; 3) More and more school governing bodies are now allowed, even encouraged, to employ people as "teachers" who have had no formal training.
Does an untrained person have any idea how to challenge at the appropriate level, pose the appropriate question at the right time, offer timely support, set the next learning objective, stimulate the struggling or uninterested learner, co-ordinate effort, allow the class time and space to learn through discovery, maintain class morale, set worthwhile homework and get it in from every pupil, mark it so that homework is a learning process, etc?
Solihull, West Midlands
• As an ex-head of English and LEA English consultant may I congratulate you on your editorial. Once again the government will criticise teachers for "playing the system", and Mr Gove will inevitably have something to say at the Tory conference once his standing ovation has subsided; but surely the fault lies squarely with those league tables that have become the sine qua non of successive ministers for education? We experienced similar criticism when Ofsted accused schools of narrowing the curriculum as we worked to improve students' Sats results, doubly burdened by incidences of inaccurate marking and clerical errors. Teachers are articulate, intelligent and innovative professionals who expend a huge amount of time and energy making DfE policies workable in the real world of the classroom. No doubt there will be more hoops – and sticks – to cope with as the system is reorganised once again. I therefore wish them well at the start of the new academic year. And remember – bring that ladder!