Today Michael Gove outlined his new plans for the GCSE. It involves scrapping coursework and encouraging longer exams and rote learning. This will apparently bring higher standards, though Gove being Gove, he hasn’t bothered to tell anyone how – presumably because he doesn’t know.
I have nine GCSEs, grades A-C. They were achieved with a mixture of coursework and exams. I have heard teachers say that these days the kids hand in coursework, get it marked and have a chance to revise and hand it in again so that they get a higher grade. We didn’t do that in my day, your grade was final. And so you might think, when hearing this, that perhaps exams are the answer then. But I also have a teacher friend whose Facebook status read the other day that his English students will have been grateful that the exam contained everything he’d suggested might be in it. Steering pupils without outright cheating, managing expectations and a wing and a prayer – the modern teaching style. God forbid these kids will have to think for themselves anytime soon. And it’s not his fault – there are targets to meet.
But I remember my teachers from school and the two I remember in a positive light were the ones who went off curriculum, who encouraged us to learn for the love of it, who recommended books, brought it to life, communicated their passion. Anything I learnt from school came from that desire to find out more for myself, to discover things and read more. And these days, if I’ve retained any facts, those facts have always come from reading about them myself.
I don’t want to get into a conversation about how today’s work environment resembles coursework more than exams – that argument’s been made already. But I do have a vested interest in this – E is likely to have to go through this at school. Her education may easily consist of being bored out of her brain by cramming for an exam and not learning how to think for herself. Problem solving, social interaction, brainstorming, creativity and, most importantly, curiosity, all seem to have gone out of the window with these proposals. I just completed a MOOC (A Massive Open Online Course) with Stanford University which was all about creativity. I’m fairly creative anyway but it’s useful to get refresher courses, ideas and new techniques to make a change to your habits. And it was interesting. But one anecdote the course highlighted was how creativity and curiosity diminish in children as they get older, and I’m talking about from age 8 or so. Because of fear of being wrong. I really can’t see how this would be changed by these proposals.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think standards need to improve. Grammar use terrifies me these days and misuse is always ALWAYS defended as “the language evolving.” Ignorance isn’t evolution. I’d also welcome anything that made maths easier, especially as I remember how awful I am at it. For union training I recently took a test that gave you a GCSE equivalent grade for literacy and maths – literacy I retained my GCSE grade but Maths I’d dropped two grades. I hated maths, saw no reason to retain knowledge and if I don’t have a calculator handy then I don’t do it. But that’s not really very good is it? (I can, on the other hand, use apostrophes properly.)
On a separate but related note, some other research a few weeks back suggested that babies born in spring and summer are less likely to succeed academically and therefore it should be made easier for them to achieve their exam grades. The stats are there to suggest summer born babies do not do as well; it’s essentially because they’ve had less time to develop than September babies. In days of yore, summer born babies started school six months later than the autumn born and it all worked its way out in the wash.
I was born in September, my best friend in July. Is she less bright than me? No. Am I brighter than her? No. Would she have appreciated people making the assumption that she was thick and dropping their standards for her based on that assumption? Certainly not. These days she’s a teacher and I think would fight any kind of suggestion that she should treat her pupils with such contempt. But the suggestion seems to sum up how we regard schoolchildren these days.
So it seems that it’s down to me to try and foster some kind of curiosity and love of learning in E. To be honest, if I can ensure that she grows up to love reading then I’ll be happy. She already likes books so we’re on the right track.
I’m clearly no expert in education. (Then again, neither is Michael Gove.) I have no experience in this and can only tell from what I’ve read and what I can see. But in my day job I often visit projects that deal with young people. Social voluntary projects, often working with kids who’ve been excluded or who are on the brink of trouble. Talking to them, and looking at the general state of standards and schools, it seems very clear to me that there is one thing that could solve, or at the very least dramatically reduce, our problems. We should have smaller class sizes, fewer students to teachers. That way, each child gets the attention it needs – for different learning styles, for counselling and guidance, and to foster curiosity and problem solving skills.
The difference here is that my evidence-free approach is the subject of a blog post; Gove’s evidence-free approach is a policy that could seriously screw my daughter’s future.