Are GCSEs really the problem?

Given the recent debate on the validity of the GCSE qualification I thought that I would throw in my two-penneth worth …


For me there are two issues involved here:


Firstly, I think that most of us would argue that GCSEs are a valuable qualification and that they are also pretty rigorous.  Mr Gove clearly doesn’t, although that is because he has never taught them.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t problems; there are!  I believe that the main problem is that in the Government cares little about what students learn in their five years at secondary school, as long as when they leave they meet their target grade and the figures give the impression of learning taking place and things getting better.  Most of you reading this blog will be familiar with the MfL GCSE so let’s take that as an example.  Looking at both the specification and the exam papers would lead you to think that students need a pretty good command of the language in order to pass the qualification (have a look at the A grade descriptor). In reality however, that is often not the case as teachers are under pressure to improve grades and are often driven to develop formulaic approaches to get students through exams, often at the cost of their understanding (controlled assessments come to mind here).  More and more students are getting high grades in MfL but at the same time, an article in The Independent last week revealed that only “9% of 14 and 15-year-olds studying French met the Council of Europe’s definition of being “an independent language user who can deal with straightforward, familiar matters”. Something doesn’t add up here.


Secondly, education is holistic – it isn’t just about passing qualifications (whatever qualification that may be) but about helping to shape young people into good, model citizens with a sense of right and wrong, an intellectual curiosity and the skills they need to continue to further education or employment.  We try our best to do this, but it isn’t always easy working within the constraints of the system.  In MfL we don’t just teach students how to speak a foreign language, but also hope to instil some sense of cultural awareness and appreciation of different language communities.  However, sometimes it feels hard to do this as there is little time to get the kids off the exam treadmill to do so.


We need to ensure that the qualification a student gets at the end of their course is a true reflection of their ability in that subject.  Changing the qualification itself won’t do that, and that’s exactly why I think that Mr Gove and his cronies need to go back to the drawing board on this one.

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