GCSEs – on reflection

It’s been a week now since child#2 received her GCSE results. She did exceptionally well – which was a huge relief to her and her parents, but for quite different reasons. For her, the fact that she achieved good grades across the board was better than she had allowed herself to hope; for us, it was the least that we felt that she deserved for the effort that she had put into completing the assessed coursework and then preparing for the exams. So now we move on to two years of AS and A level study, with a further diet of summative assessment and nervous waits for results (whilst at the same time, child#1 returns to University to pick up his History studies)

There was much press and media coverage of the GCSE results last week, with one angle in particular being picked up by those publications that could be bothered to look beyond the headline pass rates in order to try to better understand what the numbers were telling us. The account that caught my eye was published in the Guardian and can be read here :

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/22/gcse-pupils-damaging-exam-targets

The article points to evidence that some school are entering pupils for Maths and English GCSE exams on multiple occasions in years 10 and 11 in order to maximise the chances that they will gain the C grades that in turn minimise the possibility of financial sanctions or increased inspections in future years. The problem with this, of course, is that pupils spend significant amounts of time learning to pass the test, rather than ‘learning to learn’. In my experience, this applies in schools (like my child’s) where even though they weren’t entered for the summative exam on multiple occasions, pupils completed a huge number of formative assessments (‘mock exams’) during the final 18 months of the two year GCSE phase. A direct consequence is that all pupils became more proficient at learning how to answer the questions, but at the expense of a fuller understanding of the underpinning principles. The ‘exam factories’ of the article are churning out children who will fly through life provided their maths and English problems are presented exactly as they routinely are on GCSE past papers!

It’s an example of the sorts of sub-optimal and unintended consequences that flow from the poorly devised and poorly understood national targets that now pollute so much of the public and social sector

The irony is that there are people who have studied the public and services sectors and who are showing (through empirical studies) that there is a better way. Professor John Seddon (http://www.systemsthinking.co.uk/home.asp) and Dr Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net/2013/03/heres-my-paper-on-evidence-and-teaching-for-the-education-minister/#more-2849) are just two examples of people who are showing that there are other, more effective and (in the case of Seddon at least) much more efficient ways of managing public services. It would be nice to think that as well as the work already under way to review the comparability and validity of the GCSE exams themselves, some further thought was also being given to ensure that those exams are administered in the context of an overall education approach that prepares pupils for something more than getting a C

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