A fundamental flaw in the system

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
The problem of how to motivate the pupil of average and below average ability in the secondary school is an old one, and arises directly from the way that secondary education has developed around a system of external exams. "Work hard and you'll pass" (with its corollary, "Pass and you'll get a good job") has long been the motivating credo.

Only twice has the influence of external exams been questioned - in the aftermath of the 1944 Act, when many believed that secondary modern schools might develop creatively, free of exam pressure; and when some of the early comprehensive school heads felt that they ought to be pursuing a different agenda from that of their grammar school colleagues.

Neither of these idealistic visions survived the powerful logic which said that pupils capable of passing exams had the right to be prepared and entered for them. Right from the start, though, schools always had the problem of what to do with pupils who manifestly would not pass. Many a school which trumpeted its GCE results found itself bedevilled by a problematic "non-exam" group.

Given that exams were considered necessary for motivation, the obvious answer was to find an easier exam which would reach further down the ability range. In the Sixties, the Certificate of Secondary Education came along to do just this job. It slightly overlapped GCE (grade 1 equalled a GCE pass) but reached further down the ability range, and had the potential for more interesting work.

Even before CSE, though, there were heads who looked around for any sort of exam they could find, from the RSA, for example. What they could not find, they invented, so there came into being "The Wagshire School Leavers' Certificate" and its equivalent in communities across the land. "Every pupil leaves here with something" became a familiar slogan, and it worked well enough without too close an investigation into just how glittering were the prizes being carried away by the least able pupils.

All of which is intended simply to set in context the current issue surrounding qualifications for less-able 16-year-olds. For them, the national curriculum made things more difficult. Having prescribed a diet which includes, at key stage 4, some difficult concepts, the regulations then permitted, as an official assessment vehicle, only GCSE.

The need remained for some kind of separate syllabus and certificate for pupils capable only of "fail" GCSE grades. Sir Ron Dearing's review of the national curriculum drew attention to the fact that "nearly one in five of the cohort does not achieve even a Grade G in both English and Mathematics. " (Add science and the figure is slightly worse.) Sir Ron floated the concept of the cleverly-named "Entry Level" qualification for such pupils, and awards have already been approved in numeracy, literacy and IT. The various "sub-GCSE" science syllabuses which are now on offer from the exam boards clearly line up with the proposed structure. An important proviso made by Sir Ron about these courses is that they should "provide opportunities for progression to higher levels". Teachers who remember earlier restricted-level exams will recall the frustration of pupils who found that having had their interest re-awakened by an imaginative syllabus could not move to something more academic. CSE syllabuses and assessment arrangements, for instance, were often radically different from those in the same subjects at GCE, so that it was difficult for even the most eager pupil to make the change. Science Plus is one syllabus that addresses this, particularly by making sure that practical activities are linked to the mark descriptions for the Sc1 requirements of GCSE, and "allows the possibility of some candidates being entered, as late as February of Year 11, for the foundation tier of a GCSE."

The biggest question of all, though, remains unanswered. If, as Sir Ron pointed out, 8 per cent of Year 11 pupils (40,000 of 530,000) do not achieve any GCSE passes, does this not raise questions about syllabuses and teaching styles lower down than key stage 4? By the time a disgruntled pupil has entered Year 10, it is perhaps a little late to mount a rescue mission.

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