Wednesday, 30 November -0001
C-minus for Mr Gove
As the Government announces plans to scrap GCSEs, Thomas Blaikie, an English teacher for 25 years, gives his damning verdictGCSEs were introduced in 1986. Maybe now they have reached retirement age. But was it really necessary, as a prelude to replacing them with his ‘English Baccalaureate Certificates’, for the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to trash this system of examination at 16 in such a brutal and disreputable fashion?
I’m just an ordinary English teacher, dating back in fact to O level, which I taught in its final crazed phase at the outset of my career. What do I know? Well, for a start: Gove tells us his Baccalaureate will be like O levels. But O levels were not the paradise of high standards and true learning he claims.
Don’t blame GCSE for dumbing down. Blame the people on high who patronisingly assume we’ll believe anything and aren’t capable of intelligent, informed debate on the vital issue of what is taught in schools and how children are assessed.
The modular nature of GCSEs, the opportunity to retake certain sections, has also been liberally spat upon. Why? Should Sir Richard Branson have been prevented from making a second or third attempt to whirl round the world in his balloon? Accountants and doctors are allowed to resit their exams. In reality, retaking is not an easy option. With the boredom of the tired old subject matter and the stress of an extra exam on top of the next lot you’ve got to sit, there’s a serious danger of doing worse. Full marks for perseverance and motivation to those who don’t.
What of the actual content of GCSEs, apparently so contemptible? I well remember the golden glow of idealism in which GCSEs were introduced in 1986. We’ve all forgotten now just how revolutionary, what a breath of fresh air it was. Out went the dreary, dusty old O levels with their deranged multiplechoice tests for English comprehension (40 questions of hair-raising pedantry and irrelevance on a previously unseen passage). Instead, pupils were to be asked to develop their own responses to what they’d read in a broader, less-structured fashion. ‘Write about a book you found funny.’ Difficult to do well.
In conception, GCSEs were supposed to enhance and reflect what pupils actually know about and are interested in, to make knowledge, for a 15- or 16- year old, mean something. Assessment was to be not only more flexible – social skills, astonishingly for the first time, were to be assessed. The old system produced inward-looking nerds and encouraged destructive competitiveness. A pupil who was limited on paper but able to participate in a group discussion with liveliness and tact could get a well-deserved boost to their English Language GCSE.
All this resulted in a lowering of standards but it depends what your standards are. Many GCSE syllabuses cover more ground than the old O level equivalent but perhaps in less depth. And where there has been a palpable falling o of di culty, so what? Today’s pupils can’t decline endless French verbs or do dictée (so useful). On the other hand, they can speak French at a practical level.
Plans for what is to replace GCSE are as yet half-baked. We can be quite certain that whatever does come out of the oven will not be like O levels. But how depressing that, in order to sell his scheme to voters, Michael Gove has evoked an ancient, deadly dull exam and called it after another country’s method of assessment – a country, incidentally, famed for its uncreative schooling.
Even more alarming and indeed sinister is all this talk of ‘rigour’ that Gove and his cohorts go in for. What exactly does this mean? I fear it will be some punitive attempt to make children jump through unnecessary hoops.
If GCSE is now discredited, the main culprits are successive governments who have grown more and more suspicious of its liberal tendencies. One hundred per cent coursework GCSEs were abolished in the early 1990s and coursework has now been strangled altogether. At no point was any serious attempt made to deal with the problem of cheating, other than by reverting to exams. Tragic. Teachers and pupils alike are uninspired.
So, Mr Gove, if you really want to ensure that children at 16 emerge confident, energetic, enthusiastic and knowing exactly where to find that information should they need it, then go back to 1986, give birth again to GCSE and, this time, do it properly.
Q: Should GCSEs be replaced by an English Baccalaureate?
Yes - GCSEs are responsible for lowering standards - 38.5%
No - there is nothing wrong with the current form of assessment - 61.5%
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938