'The reformed GCSEs represent the profession losing a battle that has been raging for 20 years'

TES Opinion

Roger Pope, principal of Kingsbridge Academy, Devon, writes: 

To look at the new GCSE grade system is, for me, to be flooded with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I took my O-levels in 1972, and guess what? They were graded on a scale of 1-9. My grades were all 1 and 2. You’re wondering how I became a headteacher with such lousy O-levels. Yes, but grade 1 was top then, not bottom as in the new system.

So how do I feel about the new system? Answer: relief.

To understand that relief, you have only to eavesdrop on my everyday conversations with staff. They are dominated by how to get pupils to scrape that last mark that makes the difference between success and the descent of the Ofsted hounds of hell. Salvation is all about intervention.

Intervention is the answer to all adolescent ills. Bring them in for intervention before school, after school, on Christmas Day. Send a home tutor. Call in a school tutor. Bribe them with cash rewards. Push them through a mickey-mouse qualification which is no use to them, but can be done in a week and is worth the equivalent of two grade B GCSEs. Ignore the rules on controlled conditions’ work, just rewrite the stuff as many times as you like until it’s right. Shove them in for retakes and modules and more retakes. Above all, it’s the teacher’s fault if they fail.  

So yes, it is a relief that the gorgon-headed monstrosity of an exam system – and specifically the C/D boundary cliff-edge – is being chopped back to something simpler and supposedly fairer.

That is, until you remember that the profession has just lost a battle that has been raging for over 20 years.

This has essentially been about whether you reward kids for what they know, understand and can do, or fail them for what they do not know. This is not an intellectual debate; it is a moral question that goes to the heart of why most people choose to become teachers (it also helps to explain the disillusionment that underpins the ongoing strike action).

Why was coursework introduced? Because we wanted to reward a greater range of skills than is possible in an exam hall. Because we know that some kids underperform because they freeze in exam conditions, or feel ill that day. Coursework is essentially about helping to make schooling humane. It tries to build meaningful, ongoing assessment rather than sudden death at the end. It tries to give every child every opportunity to succeed in a range of situations rather than failing them when they cannot perform a limited range of tricks in just one performance on one stage.

I have been to Shanghai, the much-admired model for the future. Let us applaud the promotion of high standards and aspirations. But I have also listened to students tell of their friends who committed suicide rather than fail in their exams.

Above all, therefore, let us safeguard the principle that we want all children to leave school knowing that they are a success. What kind of society are we building if they do not?

Related links: 

GCSE analysis: Can the new exams be linked to the world's 'best' education systems?

'Could this please be the last bit of radical reform to qualifications – just for a decade or so?'

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