GCSE Mania

The first thing I need to say, is that nothing I write in this blog post is intended to be a criticism of the teachers who are currently working their backsides off to get my son and his year group through their GCSEs. Their commitment has been extraordinary and they must be knackered. But there’s nothing like being a parent watching your child go through exams to make you realise what a completely insane system it is.

He started this week. And for the next three weeks, barring half term, there is barely a day without an exam. Or two. Or on one day, three. His teachers ran revision classes all the way through the Easter holidays. They are running them from 8 in the morning and after school/exam until 5.30. He’s trying to attend everything and he’s shattered already.

Woah. What happened to independent study? To study leave? He’s been told that there will be no study leave this year until after the last exam. But….

I completely understand that teachers, held to unbearable accountability, want to squeeze every last second of contact time out of them and I understand that Headteachers working with the level of job security previously only known to Premiership football managers, are desperate to ensure the best possible results, but I wonder if this is counterproductive.

On a practical level, there are only so many days and so many subjects. So some get slots for revision and others don’t. Or the child has to choose. And I wonder about the impact of this level of dependency on their performance at A Level, or at University when no-one will run extra revision, or expect anything other than autonomous, independent learners. Are we not making rods for the backs of others?

It’s a difficult dilemma. As a parent I veer from sheer gratitude and respect for the hours they are putting in to concern for the exhaustion my child is exhibiting. I’m convinced he’d be better off revising in his pyjamas like I did with my Mum popping in with biscuits and tea. And as an educator, I wonder what impact this has on teacher well being too and how sustainable it is as a model.

He has come home three days running now saying that the paper was not ‘what he expected’. In some ways, this is exactly what papers should be – full of surprise, challenge, thought provoking questions that demand you apply your knowledge and think. But to be able to do that, you have to have been prepared to be flexible, adaptable, confident and brave. What is our current system doing to encourage this? Tired minds, tested in limited and limiting conditions don’t perform to their optimal levels. Would there be a better way to find out what he really knows, what he can really do?

He’ll be fine, I’m sure. His parents are teachers. His teachers are kind and dedicated. But I really have to query a system that prides itself on toughness, machismo and blame. That seeks not to bring out the best in our children, but to see who can survive the pressure. Because that kind of system is without tolerance. It smacks of inhumanity and the values it embeds are not ones I share.

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12 thoughts on “GCSE Mania

  1. I couldnt agree more. The pressure to produce ever-better results and to be working all the hours possible is just plain ridiculous. It would be interesting to know how many schools have wonderful value added scores at GCSE but somewhat disappointing results at A Level; I bet it’s a very high proportion, because different skills are required to achieve high grades at A Level and many students are just not able to step up. When, I wonder, will it ever dawn on a government minister of any political persuasion that if the dream of a well-educated and skilled UK workforce is to be realised, students need to ‘understand’, not ‘know’. Allow teachers the space to think and perhaps, just perhaps, this might lead to our students being encouraged to think on their own!

  2. Children and young people in England are among the most-examined in the developed world. And more is promised with ‘base-line’ tests.

    Much is unnecessary. SATs have no educational value, for example. And most of the developed world does not have high stakes exams at 16. If they’re done at all they concentrate on the core (national language, maths, science) and are few in number (no more than 5).

    That’s not to say exams aren’t important but we should be moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes. Exams at 16 should not be high stake but used together with teacher assessment and pupil inclination to decide post 16 (upper secondary) progression.

    A sensible Gov’t would do this but our Gov’t is too committed to high-stakes accountability. But our children are suffering – too much pressure and stress when children in other countries are not subjected to this.

  3. Less than an hour ago I was in my first as level exam. I, from personal experience, totally gree with everything you have just said. I have spent every waking hour for the past 4 months revising for these exams. My teachers have put in the effort too. Yet, unfortunately I went into the exam and almost instantly had an anxiety attack. The fact that our lives connot revolve around the exams, we have lives, home issues, family issues etc.
    I acheieved A’s and B’s in my exams last year but this year am barely achieving D’s. I am in no way blaming the teachers but it is an impossible jump from GCSE’s to A Level!

    Good luck to your son! x

    1. Abi – I am so sorry to hear about our experience. You and pupils like you are suffering because of the intense pressure put on you to pass exams. But, as I said above, few pupils in the developed world are subjected to this stress. There are few high stakes tests at 16 and these are used to decide 16+ progression. The problem in England is that schools are judged on their GCSE ‘pass’ rates (ie the proportion of pupils gaining 5+ GCSE (or equivalent) grades C and above including Maths and English). Teachers’ careers (especially the head’s) are on the line.

      This means the emphasis pre-GCSE is to do what it takes to get pupils over the Grade C boundary even when it is against the best interests of the pupils. For example, teaching to the test takes priority over proper education and preparation for future courses post 16.

      The same can apply in A level courses. Universities complain undergraduates aren’t able to do self-directed study – they blame it on schools ‘spoon feeding’ pupils to get them through A levels.

      Something has gone sadly wrong with education in England. Even 11 year-olds feel stressed out when faced with SATs. But these tests have no educational value at all.

      However, there is something you can do when you’re through your exams. Lobby hard against this exam regime. Get other pupils together – they must feel the same as you. Write to your MPs. Read and sign up to things like the NUT’s Manifesto for Education if you agree. Say you want proper teaching not shallow teaching to the test. Remember – no other country puts their children and young people under so much stress. And when you’re old enough to vote, it’s essential to register and then use it.

      And good luck.

  4. This is not just unsustainable and insane; it’s totally unacceptable. Instead of allowing this insane, destructive pressure on young people therefore, how about heads, teachers and parents taking responsibility and simply putting their foot down for a change? Across the country. NOW! (Or have too many quietly bought into the system and secretly think it’s actually justifiable?)

  5. What you are saying is totally correct in many ways – we are bringing kids up in a society where imagination and all ability to think for oneself appears foreign. Where the ability to sit and to read and to lose oneself seems insane when they could watch a DVD or listen to an audiobook or even read spark notes. Where GCSE preparation begins in year 9 when some children aren’t even 14. Where all targets are about exam results and achieving a bigger middle ground of mediocre than pushing those capable to achieve excellence. I fear that our education system fails our kids in many ways. Our education system says that if you struggle with English but ace Math then you are still a failure as you are forced to retake. Or if you excel in Art and Drama and Languages but fall down on Science and Math then you must continue to take Math until you pass. The truth is we are dealing with children. It’s as if we have forgotten how wonderful it feels (not that you know it at the time) to be that free and alive. To not worry but to see the fun in everything. I think it’s sad that we put our 13/14/15 year old children through this. Forcing them to feel inadequate if they cannot be ‘good’ at it all. Is that not what life is about? Individuality? Difference?
    What i fear is that if we put this constant pressure on these kids, then those who are less academic are always going to feel inadequate and in some cases, worthless. This sort of education system does nothing to praise the individual successes of kids. We are failing to acknowledge their strengths unless it makes the school or education system look good, yet in the real world, it is our differences which help us survive and be successful as a race. We need bankers as much as we need shelf stackers in Sainsbury’s. We need scientists as much as we need TA’s, plumbers and electricians. These children should be guided to feel proud of who they are and their own strengths, no made to feel inferior due to their weaknesses and given unnecessary pressures on top.

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