Every year, just before exam season kicks off, I experience what I have come to see as a natural phenomenon. To me, it’s one of the signs of spring: students turn up in my office and announce, weeks from their final A-level exams, that they made a mistake. They were on the wrong course all along. They need to quit school. They don’t want to be a lawyer/doctor/prime minister after all.
And every year, we chat, we weigh up the options, and they decide that maybe – just maybe – they might have let the stress get to them a bit. Maybe they might just grit their teeth and get through the last few weeks. Maybe, even if they do want to change their plans, there might be a better time to do so – perhaps after the exams?
I always think about this when I hear stories about stress among students. The sheer inevitability of it all reminds me of the importance of understanding that our goal as teachers is not the eradication of stress, but the fashioning of it into something productive and manageable. And I’ve been thinking about this again, now that the new GCSEs are finally hitting the fan.
But maybe there’s more to it than this.
'By hook or by crook'
I’m vice-principal of a successful school that has, like so many others, always struggled with the achievement of disadvantaged students. We do well by them, but not as well as we might. We’ve tried many things, from three-year key stage 4, to repeated entry (before that was disallowed), to interventions every morning from September onwards.
Before the change in syllabus, we would push students to bank their grades in controlled assessment, calculating what they needed to get to still scrape through. Driven by league tables, we’d try every trick in the book to gain an edge – and sometimes we’d succeed.
But all of this was only deferring the problem. Simply put, students who have been pulled through at GCSE by hook or by crook, who’ve done courses they could pass with minimal effort, struggle when it comes to A level. This goes right to the heart of the problems in our education system.
This is where I can bring a very specific perspective to this. I started at my current school when we set up a new sixth form four years ago. I left a school in a leafy London suburb with percentages of free school meals in the low teens and moved to one with figures hovering around 40. Not only that, but my new school was in Sunderland, an area with a persistent trend of educational underachievement, whether you look at performance tables, HE destination figures, or inspection results.
I learned many things over the first few years of the job, but one of the most striking, and unexpected was the culture change needed for the move between key stage 4 and key stage 5. It was crystal clear with the first group of students to pass through into sixth form.
These were high achievers. They had stacks of GCSEs, all at high grades, many sat in Year 10. They were lovely, too – ambitious, energetic, positive. But I faced what seemed to be an astonishing battle to persuade them that they needed to work in their own time, at home, as a matter of course. When I thought about it, I could see where they were coming from. Up until now, everything had been laid out for them on a plate. Schoolwork for them was about exactly that: school. Not home, just school.
And, of course, the staff – dedicated, skilled and effective as they were – were also used to this same status quo. Years of teaching GCSE had schooled them in fixed ways of thinking, just as it had the students. What mattered to them, understandably, was the grade at GCSE. This was seen as the final point; the thing that would allow students to progress on to a next stage outside of school, without worrying how well-equipped they actually were for it.
The worst part was that the damage this inflicted fell disproportionally on the high-ability disadvantaged. They were the students who had no wider cultural knowledge of what might be expected of them at the next stage of education. They were the ones who, when they struggled, thought they were just thick. They were the ones whose fragility was only reinforced by their success.
We changed, of course. We adapted, and carry on adapting. But I haven’t forgotten what I realised back then: that the fixation of our system on a series of regular, arbitrary end-points denies students the possibility of growth.
So what about the new GCSE? Surely this is just another arbitrary assessment that traumatises students without good educational justification?
No. For three reasons.
First, on a basic level, the new GCSEs are theoretically sound. They were launched with a series of soundbites from the DfE about focusing on knowledge instead of skills, which infuriated many teachers – myself included. However, not for the first time, the political spin obscured the truth.
As Daniel Willingham has pointed out, knowledge is essential to the thinking process. We can't divorce the architecture of thinking skills – such as logical reasoning or creative problem-solving – from the constituent building blocks of knowledge they employ to construct solutions. Try conducting an experiment without the key equation, or analysing literature without reading a book. In fact, the assumption that one can focus on skills alone often relies on an assumed body of core knowledge built up by the cultural capital of a middle-class upbringing. The gaps in knowledge amongst culturally disadvantaged young people can be staggering, and unexpected.
What is more, these gaps can go unnoticed without targeted attention. It's like eyesight. Until you test a child, they just assume everything is blurry for everyone else, too. Until you check that everyone understands the basic assumptions behind a lesson, students can blunder around in a fog of misconception.
This takes me to my second reason. A more rigorous exam forces schools to address these issues properly. When the consequences of failure are so catastrophic, it’s no wonder school leaders can be tempted by the quick fix: the students put in for an extra course at the last minute, the schools switching between exam boards.
Admittedly, the stifling of arts education that the EBacc has caused is nothing short of a crime, but the pressure of the new GCSE in a more general sense means that we’re forced to pay more attention to the KS3 curriculum, and to the needs of our students as learners, in a way that everyone should benefit from.
'Students need failure'
And this leads me to my third reason. Simply put – difficulty is good. Those students who succeeded at GCSE but crumbled at A level were not served by being allowed to coast. They needed the tempering of challenge, the stretching that only comes with reaching high. They needed fair, challenging exams that, crucially, didn’t matter too much if they didn’t get the top grade.
That’s the point. Students need failure. It is the oxygen of learning. They need challenge, but they also need upset – and they need it in a safe, controlled environment.
Of course, some would say that a safe, controlled environment is exactly what schools at GCSE time are not. But is that the fault of the new GCSEs? Perhaps the distorting effect of meaningless performance tables might have some role to play. Maybe it is the lack of adequate technical education as an alternative to academic routes, forcing demotivated kids into subjects they don’t care about. Or it could even be the marketisation of a public good that turns institutions that should be collaborating into competitors, and children into units of funding to be fought over.
Who knows? But if you’re dealing with stressed GCSE students, how about we give them a simple message?
It’s not the end of the world if you fail.
We never say this, but GCSEs don't matter nearly as much as we make out. You probably need your pass in maths and English, but you can retake. Amongst the higher grades, what employer actually cares whether you have an 8 or a 9? If you're that academic, A-level grades and then your degree will quickly supersede GCSEs. Just do your best – really your best. Embrace difficulty. Work hard, get the grade you deserve.
Then go and enjoy the summer.
Sammy Wright is director of sixth form at Southmoor Academy, Sunderland