Schools boost results by making brighter pupils take too many subjects, writes Colin Hodgetts. When a school's effectiveness is to be judged by its examination pass rate, it should not come as any surprise that some, perhaps many, refuse to enter for exams pupils who are likely to do badly in them.
But there is another aspect of the annual examboree which seems to have been given little consideration: the pressure on the more able to sit every subject under the sun.
The plight of your clever teenager is similar to that of the goose whose liver is destined for pate de fois gras. But instead of one farmer stuffing down the corn, as happens to a goose, each teacher feeds the hapless student with his or her own brand of corn, and there could be up to 13 of them as up to 13 different subjects may be sat.
This is not for the student's good, but for the teacher's and the school's. The student can get into university with five subjects at grade C or above, so long as they include English and maths and perhaps another language. However, to become a gleam in the headteacher's eye, the subject teacher has to deliver as many Cs or above as possible. The more passes, the gleamier. Teachers therefore headhunt bright pupils, pressurising them to sit their subject.
One result of this is that pupils come away with the feeling that the only reason for taking a subject is the grade at the end of it. Heads of sixth form meet the consequence of this: young people may be reluctant to take seriously any input, such as general studies, that does not lead to a certificate of some sort. The idea of pursuing a subject for its own sake is one that exists only in the history books of educational theory or in the romancings of a William Morris.
I don't believe, however, that we will ever get real enthusiasm for a subject, or real teaching for that matter, unless we are prepared to see pupils fail a subject.
At the beginning of my GCSE courses, and from time to time during them, I told my pupils that they would get through as a result of their input and energy, not mine. They were given dates for the completion of coursework, and reminders, but they were never bribed nor bullied.
And though it sometimes came late in the day, only the rare exception failed to deliver the goods. The result was a pride in what they knew was their achievement - they were not regurgitating what I had fed to them - and a love of the subject which led many to take it at A-level. There some, I am sorry to say, had the fire quickly extinguished. This is not the end of my heretical leanings. At the Small School, Hartland, we actively discourage pupils from taking more than seven GCSEs, so as to allow them time to pursue their own interests and to study subjects for their own sakes. I have had to write letters to support applications to universities explaining why these applicants do not, like a dowager duchess with pearls, drip with GCSEs, but so far I have perceived no bias against them. Quite the reverse. Interviewers seem quite impressed by those things which they have done for their own sakes and for themselves.
Though we restricted the number of GCSEs that could be taken, we also insisted that everyone take five. Most of them managed that, even though the school accepts the full range of ability.
When Brendon, a former pupil of mine from a farming family, got his results (no one expected GCSEs from him) he sang all day, so his mother said, as he drove his tractor.
GCSEs are not for bright pupils, they are for the less able. For the Brendons of this world to master a subject up to GCSE standard is a real challenge and a real achievement. To be able to hold out that possibility is to have in one's hands a powerful motivator, and I have used it successfully in that way. It is therefore quite distressing to me to learn of schools where the less able are never offered this chance.
To the bright pupil, all one can say, now that we are no longer able to offer 100 per cent coursework, is this is just a hoop through which you have to jump, so let us get it over as simply and as quickly as possible. Then we can move on to things that are much more important.
Colin Hodgetts is a consultant with Human Scale Education.