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GCSEs: it’s the process, not the outcome that’s important

Education isn’t about the answer: it’s about the thinking that occurs before it, writes Nancy Gedge

GCSEs, Sats, Exams, school exams, pressure on children

At this time of year, there is a growing sense of anxiety among the student population about getting things right. You can tell because they all have this faint sheen of sweat about them, their shoulders are hunched, when they get home their voices tend towards the screech and the accusation of putting them under pressure is frequent. In turn, adult voices can be heard repeating the mantra “show your working!” again and again in increasingly desperate tones. The trouble is, like us, they want to write the answer, get it over, knowing that they were right. It’s all a bit stressful for everyone.

One of the advantages of having your own children, especially as a teacher, is that you get to see the broad view of their education. Unlike the subject teacher – bound and enclosed by the classroom walls, the invisible borders of their own departments and subjects – by helping out with homework and revision (or attempting to ensure it gets done, anyway), especially when they are finding things tricky, it is possible to see the process of each subject and how it is valued or assessed. In art and design, it is the sketchbook. In English and the humanities, the discursive essay. In maths, the step-by-step solving of the problem, laid out logically (one hopes); in science, similar. I guess music and drama could be said to be more focus=sed on the final product, the performance, the composition, except that without the practice and preparation they wouldn’t exist at all.

For a young person focused on getting the right answer and unwilling to attempt a question where they aren’t sure of it, GCSEs, in particular, are a challenge. These exams are hard and there is an unwritten expectation that they won’t know the answers. Explaining grade boundaries doesn’t help as you watch them conclude that getting a good mark doesn’t matter so if they don’t know it they won’t bother to have a go. Understanding that the examiners are interested in how they came to their conclusions almost as much as the conclusions themselves is helpful.

At 16-years-old, students are young, still fixated on The Answer, especially after 11 years of an education that has boxed it up and told them that it was in the form of a success criteria. Whether or not the GCSE is designed appropriately, or even necessary at all, is an argument for another day, but I think it can be boiled down to what you think an education is for or even what it is. For me, it is that process of coming to a conclusion, of sorting out your thoughts into an order, however the subject you choose as your favourite has shown you how to do: that is the point. It isn’t so much "the best that has been thought and said" – after all, who is to say? – but the process, because it is those processes, not the outcomes of them, that are the tools with which we learn to think.

Nancy Gedge is Tes SEND columnist, coordinator of the Ormerod Resource Base at the Marlborough School, Woodstock, and author of Inclusion for Primary Teachers

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