Letter from the Editor. Covid has Taught us that GCSE exams should have No Place in British Education.
First, in the interests of full disclosure, I have never been a fan of exams. Full stop. If I had had a choice in the matter I would have attended Summerhill. My review can be found here. The school web site can be found here.
The arguments are well rehearsed. Exams tell us only about how good a child is at sitting exams and little about intelligence or achievement. Variables, including the wrong questions coming up, feeling unwell, poor handwriting, personal events and peer pressure mean that deciding a child’s future on the basis of two hours is at the least unfair and ridiculous and at the worst damaging and savage. In the world of work, or research, the ability to complete exams has never been remotely relevant to my professional life. I am not saying that studying a broad range of subjects between 14 years old and 16 years old is not important. It develops our minds and is good for the soul. It helps us understand ourselves – and what interests us. It builds up skills in sharing ideas and team working. My bug bear is not with learning – but with deciding the fate of children on the basis of a couple of hours exams – and particularly in schools where subject choice is restricted.
For far too many children at 16, we do not just put all the eggs in one basket, we set things up to deliberately break them.
In history, many of the big hitters of Science and Literature and Commerce (and everything) existed and thrived long before exams even existed. My parent’s generation saw the majority of children leaving school at sixteen and many of those, including my Father, went on to achieve at the top of their industries.
Isaac Newton was a disaster at school, leaving to become a farmer. A late developer he returned to school at eighteen when he was ready to learn. Oxbridge followed. Stephen Fry did “miserably” at GCSEs and is something of an intellectual giant today – again Oxbridge followed. Eggs, Baskets, Damage, Unfairness – examinations at 16 are simply ludicrous.
And there is more. The endless examples of men and women who have been successful – and changed the world – who failed their exams are legion. Take just two. Steven Spielberg’s grades saw him refused entry into further education. Richard Branson left school without a qualification to his name. At the least this shows that exams do not prevent you from being successful.
Over the last decade the world has changed. Whilst industries are now increasingly choosing their intake because of the achievements and skills of people outside exams, governments worldwide have been going in completely the other direction and making exams even more important. Children can no longer even leave school at 16 in the UK unless they are going into an apprenticeship or training scheme. Universities are full to bursting with young people as it increasingly becomes the new normal. At this rate, young people will never leave “school.” Young people are placed in an endless trap of needing ever more qualifications to prove their worth and stand-out. Universities, once designed to cater for those seeking a specialist career in something like medicine, or for those wanting to become academics and invest their lives in research, are now becoming something no different from GCSEs – just a standard part of an expected education that lasts forever.
Covid 19 revealed a shocking fact that many of us knew but which did not really register. Exams are not designed to celebrate a child’s success. They are not designed to show how intelligent a child is. They are not designed even to show how well a child has achieved at school, or how hard they have worked. Exams are none of these things. They are designed only to divide children up, from best to worst, of who is good at examinations – and to set their life chances on the back of this. Exams are about numbers, not people. They are about creating statistics – and damned be the consequences. Covid 19 gave GCSE examinations their day in court – and they resoundingly lost.
This weekend murmurings of discontent have started to gain traction in private and state schools with the setting up of a group under the banner “Rethinking Assessments.” It is less ironic than telling that it includes within its number of those wishing to kill off GCSEs one Kenneth Baker, the man who invented them. He is joined by Eton and (not unexpectedly) Bedales – but also by academic stalwarts St Paul’s girls’ school and Latymer upper school. Even more tellingly “several substantial academy chains” have joined the “movement.” More on this story by the Guardian Newspaper can be found here. The discontent with GCSEs is widespread. In twenty years, as endless governments have tinkered with our children’s lives, I have not spoken with a single teacher or Head who is not full of ideas about how they should be replaced.
Ask any parent and they would be horrified to think of their child as a statistic. But that is just what GCSEs make them. Our children are just numbers on a conveyor belt that sifts out the wheat from the chaff. A better example is the egg factory I worked out during one painfully long summer holidays. Of the countless thousands of eggs that travelled along the conveyor belt, it seemed to me that we lost more eggs crashing to the floor (I had to clean them up) than the countless number removed for being not up to the mark.
Would the world fall apart if we killed of GCSEs and examinations at 16? Would our children suddenly become stupid? Failures? Would schools no longer be able to teach them? Can anyone tell me any sort of negative consequence at all?
But imagine a world without them….
Children would study until the age of 16 without stress. Our children would learn at their own pace – and ideally in subjects that fascinated them and drove them wild with interest. Their teachers, who know them best, would, with our children, work through what is right for them, not what is right for examinations. Yes, Teachers. You heard that right. Amazing, wonderful teachers. Did not Covid prove the point that teachers know our children better than exam results ever could? Exam league tables would be a thing of the past and no longer used as a stick to beat up schools, children and parents. At sixteen, naturally, our children would choose the subjects to study that they were most interested in – and would not be precluded from doing so by exams. School would become a much happier place. And a more productive one. Wouldn’t they?
For many reading this, it will sound far too worthy. Ridiculous even. “Toughen them up” they will jeer. The world is a hard place. I can just hear the haters screaming Darwinian evolution. But maybe, just maybe, there will be others that will share my view that GCSEs are past their sell by date. Too much damage has already been done – and we can start to put things right by abolishing them to save future children from the scrap heap.
I also wager this. Within ten years, and probably sooner, GCSEs will not exist. Far more tellingly, we shall all wonder why they existed in the first place.
© SchoolsCompared.com. All right reserved. 2020.
Editor’s Note 2nd October 2020:
Since I wrote this article, Simon Jenkins has published a beautifully written and well argued case for abolishing both GCSE and A’ Level examinations in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Given the tone of my article it will be clear it is a case that I support. I simply did not have the courage, in print, to be as radical as he is and I should have been. But is it really so radical? It is worth your time reading this, and the comments attached to the piece. The article can be found here.