'There's a middle way between scrapping GCSEs and the status quo'
The upheaval from Covid-19 could let us rethink the role and structure of GCSEs, writes Paul Dwyer from Redmaids' High School
Planning ahead as a school leader has never been a bigger balancing act. Trying to ensure that our community remains safe while continuing to provide as strong an education as possible has been challenging for all of us.
Alongside this though is also a desire to look past our current crisis. What should education look like at the dawn of this new decade, even as it is beset with a monumental crisis? What could education look like?
Looking too far ahead when the immediate future remains so uncertain can feel self-indulgent, particularly when the safety of our staff and students must be our first concern. Yet to neglect these wider conversations might also be to perpetuate many of the issues we face.
The strife caused by the standardising algorithm for GCSE and A-level students reignited debates about the nature of examinations and assessment in UK schools, from calls to reduce the emphasis on exams to a desire to abolish GCSEs altogether. Yet our desire for normality perhaps shifted such arguments to the background come September.
"The number of exams now expected of Year 11 students has arguably become a test of attrition."
Yet this should be the moment to consider what comes next for our students and the role that we play in helping them take their place in the world. Since the last set of reforms to GCSE, removing modular elements, the number of exams now expected of Year 11 students has arguably become a test of attrition as much as of knowledge and understanding.
Would anything be lost or made worse by seeking ways to reduce the number of exams that are sat in a comparatively short space of time? Are we sure that the wide variety of subjects that students are expected to cover do justice to the next steps they will be taking?
That is not to say that our current approach need be scrapped altogether. For all the talk of “21st century skills” or the “workplace of the future”, there is little evidence that such outcomes need to be separated from a more subject focused approach as is currently in place. Indeed, developing teamwork and communication skills is arguably more effective and meaningful when done through debating historical sources or the outcomes of experiments rather than through standalone exercises.
"We should offer students flexibility in the number and style of qualifications they take."
There is perhaps a middle way between scrapping GCSEs altogether and preserving our system exactly as it stands. Offering more flexibility to students in order to afford them more choice on the number and style of qualifications should become our focus. Allowing the development of school specific qualifications that allow more scope for cross-disciplinary study or context specific opportunities will empower teachers as well as offering a tailored approach to students within a traditional framework.
Less fixation on 9 or 10 GCSE subjects as the expected standard would be a helpful start. It is possible to imagine a future where schools offer courses ranging from Creative Writing, Local History and Liberal Arts to Medical Science or Engineering without losing rigour. Working with exam boards to gain accreditation would lend weight to such an approach, particularly with universities and employers.
There is a danger that our current approach provides too much of a fixed focus. Feedback at a national level consistently highlights a perceived lack of particular skills that would better prepare students for participation in the workplace. And yet fear of losing a uniform structure that is understood by all means that very little changes. Our current situation provides an opportunity that should be seized in recognition of the role that our students will play at the forefront of shaping a post-Covid world.
Our ambition in education should be to provide a structure in which students not only recognise they are part of a much bigger picture, but they feel empowered to take their place in that picture and shape it accordingly.
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