Too Many GCSEs?
Before changing roles Michael Gove announced sweeping changes to A Levels, claiming that the current system did not help pupils to develop a “deeper understanding” of their subjects. He stated that from 2015, pupils undertaking A Levels will take exams at the end of two year courses and that AS Levels will remain, but as stand-alone exams that do not count towards the overall A Level.
Whilst many schools welcome a return to linearity and the loss of disruptive modular programmes, an important yardstick will be lost. The current AS Levels are useful to pupils, parents, schools and universities for better understanding an individual’s strengths and weakness and for advising on upper sixth subject options and university aspirations. They also provide valuable motivation for pupils to work hard in the first year of A Level study. I welcome a focus on teaching rather than testing and a movement away from bite-size learning, but the link between AS and A Level is useful and successful; it is certainly not broken.
What does this mean for universities? Well, with the loss of AS Levels at the end of the lower sixth year universities will increasingly turn to other factors for differentiating between candidates, such as the UCAS application, their own entrance tests and pupils’ GCSE profiles. However, the GCSE playing field is not a level one with schools adopting a variety of strategies - some entering pupils for as many as possible, others advocating a smaller number and a few calling for a complete end to testing at 16. Is there a best way?
On average, pupils study 10 GCSEs but in some cases they study as many as 15. Whilst decisions are best left to individual schools, the co-curriculum should share top billing with the curriculum, and I suspect that pupils sitting a high number of GCSEs are doing so at the expense of co-curricular activities and enrichment. This approach, combined with the equally dubious approach of entering pupils for examinations early, is damaging to the wider learning process. Pupils who are capable of 8 or so A*-As are, in some case, getting up to 15 passes at lower grades. Universities are looking for quality, not quantity, a demonstrable passion for the subject and the confident, articulate and reflective all rounder. Sadly for some pupils, poor advice has irrevocable university and career limiting consequences. Less is often more and academically self confident schools enter pupils for fewer assessments.
This is a relatively complex equation and as well as balancing the curricular and co-curricular, we must also manage breadth and depth of study. Of course, it is important that we do not force our 14 year olds to narrow their options too far too soon, but just how many GCSEs are necessary and which ones should be compulsory? As a nation, we seem increasingly obsessed with examinations and league tables, testing everything that pupils do. I believe that our boys and girls sit too many exams at 16 and I support those schools that have capped the number of subjects at GCSE, encouraging pupils to spend more time on sport, music, drama, outdoor education and non-examined enrichment. Surely, teaching our pupils about personal finance, health and nutrition, ethics and wider global issues is more important than GCSEs 9, 10, 11 and so on? Having said that, I was very disappointed to hear an admissions tutor from a leading UK university recently tell parents at my school that the co-curricular side of life is far less important to them than it once was. This narrowing view of education will only serve to increase the already damaging exam factory approach to schooling.
Fewer GCSEs will give pupils more time to study, exploring each subject in great depth and allowing for more off-syllabus discourse. A criticism of the current regime is that GCSEs are not necessarily a good indicator of future A Level success. Well, if pupils could spend more time on fewer subjects, then maybe the predictive ability of GCSEs might improve. Fewer GCSEs might also mean less notoriety for Exam Boards if fewer papers are sat and fewer fringe markers required.
Education is about fostering a life-long passion for learning and building critical thinking skills, and there is a danger that fun and exploration disappear from the experience as pupils take on too many subjects. Learning should be enjoyable and it is our duty to do the very best to make sure that every pupil fulfils his or her potential, both in and out of the classroom, examined and non-examined. Racing through too many courses, exam driven teaching and the banking of below par results is not, in my opinion, the way forward.