For better or worse, modern grammars have moved on

4th December 2009 at 00:00

What a hornets' nest Adrian Elliott has stirred with his "debunking" of the "exams are getting easier" arguments ("Myth: 'The apparent rise in standards is just exams getting easier'", November 13).

This debate identifies two perspectives irrelevant to the real issues here - one that seeks to justify the rigour of GCSE exams in comparison to the past and one that seeks to denigrate them as a pale shadow of what the examinees once had to deal with.

Why irrelevant? Because apples are not pears. Far from there being an absolute best measure of "learning", the tests we use have, at least to an extent, emerged from what we need as a society.

O-levels, as with School Certificates before them, did a certain job: act as a measure of the ability of a small proportion of the population to do certain things, especially remember facts and express them clearly and grammatically and mathematically accurately.

The O-level was a way to sort those that might go on to be the great and the good, the professionals of all sorts, from the blue-collar technicians. Those for whom O-levels were not appropriate could then settle into the other 70 to 80 per cent of jobs in manufacturing, heavy and light engineering and so on.

Do we need those skills in the same way in a world of instant data, hyperspeed information, the spell-checker and graphic calculator? Is it right to limit success to a specific skill set - "You must be good if you can do 'X and Y', even if you have the interpersonal skills of a donkey"?

Yes, businesses want good literacy and numeracy, but they also want collaborative skills, problem-solving, lateral thinking and confident communication.

Children too have changed. Whether we like it or not, they have very different appetites, with knowledge made easily accessible in our "Google it" world.

For all their faults, GCSEs are more inclusive and more participatory - based on skills one can learn and not on proclivities such as a good memory.

What matters is whether current qualifications are fit for purpose - and purpose, as this debate shows, appears to be variable.

Dr Barry Wratten, Headteacher, Churchill Community Foundation School and Sixth Form Centre, Churchill, North Somerset.

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