A New Year, a new broom. Resolutions made and broken already. Dry or wet, January is a month of change.
First, there was UCAS’ “shock” announcement that from 2024 the personal statement will be consigned to history. The emergence of ChatGPT has prompted the hard-wired negativity often shown in humans when significant change is suggested.
“Is it possible to believe that these exams are measures of knowledge and/or learning over a period of time?”
Modern education reform seems to change at glacial pace. Ken Robinson’s seminal 2006 TED talk questioning the role of schools and industrialised exam programmes stifling creativity may have received nearly 75 million views, but the National Curriculum, GCSEs and A-levels still seem as resolute as Blake’s satanic mills. Why?
Is it possible to believe that these exams are reasonable measures of knowledge and/or learning over a period of time? Jo-Anne Baird, director of Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, certainly thought so in 2019, asserting that “people would be surprised at the amount of research that goes into designing GCSEs…they are often looked at as very innovative by assessment researchers around the world”.
The debate about GCSEs and whether they test exam performance rather than learning, suggests radical change may be distant. And it is left to schools to take the decision to reject the examination system by designing their own courses. Curiously, this brave move is often followed by attempts at ratification from the same bodies governing GCSEs or by the caveat that the new courses sit alongside a suite of GCSEs. Plus ça change?
“GCSEs are the only tangible award available at the time of application.”
A reason for the need for ratification or hybrid models is the importance placed upon GCSEs in the university application process. They are the only tangible award available at the time of application, do carry weight, and are for many universities (especially in the US) a measure of the rigour of the programme.
There is a feeling that, without further shifts in the admission process, that certification will remain vital. So it was refreshing to hear Lord Patten speak recently of the role of university being “learning, not credentialling” and use Cardinal Newman’s delicious description of university as a place where “enquiry is pushed forward…by the collision of mind with mind”.
Not many educators would disagree with that broad notion but clearly the way in which you arrive at these great seats of learning requires further thought.
Surely, the answer lies in these debates not as polemics but as nuanced conversations — credentials are important. Students must have the relevant and trusted passports to allow them access to the world’s universities. As an international head, I can report that GCSEs, A-levels and the IBDP fit that bill and university admissions teams are clear that these courses offer the right access.
“GCSEs are a foundation from which we explore enriching opportunities.”
Secondly, the capacity of every school to allow minds to collide, to grow intellectual curiosity, to foster the independence required to flourish at university or in work, is a must.
The GCSE was never designed for this purpose. It was a homogeneous examination series to replace the O-levels in line with a new National Curriculum. As such, aren’t we missing the point if we are blaming the GCSE for the ills of secondary education?
The GCSE or an equivalent thereof will exist in the UK and British Schools overseas for a good time to come, not least because of the political mess in the UK, a mess so profound that education seems to have dropped off the political landscape.
“We all hope to educate in the widest and deepest possible way.”
In the meantime, we chart our own course and to deliver a world class education within the framework of British and global education. GCSEs are a foundation from which we explore enriching opportunities. A-levels and IB diplomas open doors to new opportunities and are credentials for entering a world we prepare students for through the co-curriculum, leadership opportunities, layers of academic enrichment, and outstanding pastoral care. We want our students to be able to answer UCAS’ new questions articulately, in the same way that we aim for them to be “interesting people” in any forum.
I won’t be the first head nor the last to espouse these values, we all hope to educate in the widest and deepest possible way. We shape and update what we do, make progress and challenge orthodoxy knowing that we are building on firm foundations laid by the expertise and excellence of those who went before. We change, but not for its own sake.
Apparently C.S. Lewis mused “isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back everything is different”. But then again ChatGPT tells me that although this quote is often attributed to C.S. Lewis, it cannot be found in any of his works.