GCSEs won't prepare me for the real world
Two weeks ago, Covid-19 caused something no schoolchild could ever have expected: the cancellation of exams. Unsurprisingly, this unprecedented situation prompted a wave of articles, with columnists starkly divided between those who religiously endorsed exams and those who saw an opportunity to progress beyond the archaic system of GCSEs.
And I, a 15-year-old boy with perhaps nerdy tendencies, find myself agreeing with the latter group. But why?
I have sat countless exams throughout my years at school, having a formula drilled into me. A formula incompatible with creativity. A formula hardly seen outside an exam hall. A formula called “GCSE”. Selfishly, these exams devour two, or even three, of our peak years of education, before spewing out floundering teenagers, who quickly realise that this formula can’t write a compelling job application, is incompatible with the demands of A levels and is really an initiative-stunting burden. Tragically, initiative is the precise quality required for the innovation that our future so desperately needs.
Ultimately, GCSEs have one sole purpose: to get pupils into their desired colleges or sixth forms. So it’s ironic that, come September, GCSEs are not only forgotten but also often their rigid principles must be meticulously erased from your memory before you continue your education and enter the "real" world. These exams are like a Dairy Milk in the height of summer. The thought of the rich, creamy chocolate is delightfully exciting. But when we finally peel the wrapper off, we only find a sludgy mess of oozing liquid, its worth quickly disappears. The futile saga of GCSEs interrupts your prime years of education, like the dreary minutes we must spend wiping the sticky chocolate off our hands.
Perhaps the scrap of paper we are handed in late August would be worth the sacrifice if it was a valid reflection of aptitude. But it’s not. It’s merely a measure of your capacity to cram your head with dates and the colour that sodium hydroxide turns copper sulphate.
The UK is the only European country to enforce national exams at 16, exams that are more a memory test than anything else. And, unfortunately, we need a pandemic to jolt us into the 21st century. Having defiantly waved goodbye to the EU, I hope we haven’t become too proud to have a “European-style” education overhaul. Maybe, just maybe, my cohort of Year 11s will survive without exams at 16.
Kings Langley, Hertfordshire
Hold exams in autumn and change the academic year
I am writing having read Geoff Barton’s recent article "When schools return it will not be 'business as usual'" (3 April 2020). The following is not my idea – I picked it up on a music teacher Facebook group – but having spent 42 years in the profession in schools (as a lifetime NASUWT member), as a national adviser for SSAT and, until last September, leading a music hub, I feel it is worth wider consideration.
In the hope that schools will reopen in September. I suggest we make the autumn term the missed summer term. I recognise that the system is a long way down the road with proposals to award public exam grades based on teacher assessment, but is there time enough for a rethink?
The autumn term is roughly the same length as the summer term. Public exams and so on could be held in late October/November. The benefits are that students could take the examinations for which they have been preparing and the annual problem for hay fever sufferers would simply not exist. Universities, too, could do the same, but at no extra fee.
The knock-on effect would then be to completely reset the academic year the the calendar year. Universities could start a little later to cope with the time it takes to validate public examinations. The school year would have to be examined in order to move away from the agro-religious pattern that we have. Easter could be a long weekend. The summer holiday could be shortened to maybe a month, perhaps aligned with Scotland? Historically, August is a pretty poor month weather-wise, so a “term 3 “could start then. Other longish holidays could be created to ensure that teachers get the rest they so vitally need.
Most businesses shut down over Christmas, so if this were to be made compulsory, nationally, in the wake of the current situation, I am sure it would assist family time. And while I would not suggest a lockdown, perhaps a period of rest and calm would also help to clean up the atmosphere.
This is the opportunity to review the system, as Geoff Barton rightly suggests.
Richmond, North Yorks
Precious time for children to discover their place in the world
Lockdown is giving all of us food for thought at the moment.
Having taught for 30 years, I’ve seen changes in the curriculum become more prescriptive, with an imbalanced preference towards maths and literacy, gradually devaluing the skills, knowledge and understanding of other subjects and aspects of education.
Now we are in lockdown, the benchmark for the expectations of our youngsters in school will have to shift. They will return to school prepared with a different skill set.
Parents up and down the country are working extremely hard to balance educating their children at home with keeping down their day job. In among all of this, our children are no longer being organised with ballet classes, swimming lessons, sports coaching or the like.
While the world around us is desperately fighting coronavirus, our youngsters are being given a fantastic opportunity. They are being given time. Time to discover, to use their imaginations, to be creative, to make up stories, to problem-solve, as well as simply time to spend with their families.
When schools do finally reopen, children may well return with vastly different levels of learning from those they would have had under “normal” circumstances, but instead they will have a deeper understanding of who they are and their place in the world. They will develop resilience, something I have observed decline in recent years. They will be confident to question and test, knowing that a setback is not a sign of failure but an opportunity to bounce back and try another way.
Amid all this uncertainty, we have an ideal opportunity to turn the tables and to value all that our youngsters have to offer. Here’s hoping...