Kneads must for the tables

24th October 2003 at 01:00
There is nothing like a high stakes examination system for screwing up the curriculum. Make an announcement tomorrow that a certificate in ice skating will be worth the equivalent of five good GCSE grades and thousands of freezing, blue-cheeked adolescents will be seen tottering round the nation's ice rinks the very next day.

The report that a City and Guilds course in baking might be given the same value as five GCSEs grade A* to C does a service neither to vocational education nor to the school curriculum.

If it goes ahead, I suspect that many pupils taking it will be about as interested in baking as I am in collecting matchboxes. It will become just another wheeze for shunting schools up the league tables.

I sat in on a staff discussion about how a secondary school was planning to improve its examination results. "We need to do more borderlining," one teacher said. "Yes and we ought to consider doing Thomas Telford," another rejoined.

Any uninitiated visitor might have assumed they were discussing a makeover for someone's front room, or planning an assassination, but cognoscenti would have immediately recognised two front-line exam result boosting strategies:

* concentrating on pupils at the CD borderline, and

* signing up for the online ICT course, worth four good GCSEs, that has earned Thomas Telford school in Shropshire pound;7 million profit.

Such is the pressure on schools nowadays to move up the league tables that desperation can easily dominate the agenda.

Spending excessive time with pupils on the borderline is good news for them, and I have run voluntary lunchtime catch-up classes myself.

But if it happens during mainstream lessons, then it is bad news for the bright children who are neglected, since their result is in the bag, and for slower pupils, who are left floundering because they are thought unlikely to reach a grade C.

Assessment is meant to be a servant of the curriculum, not its sole driver.

Yet when the stakes are high, normal principles of teaching and learning may imperceptibly seep away through the floorboards. League tables can bring massive pressure, threats of dire sanctions and even closure. In schools facing humiliation or oblivion, intelligent professional judgment struggles for a hearing, drowned under the clamour for desperate measures.

I love cooking and do a bit of baking when I have time. It is both creative and therapeutic, so I am in favour of decent courses being offered in the field. However, the thought of conscripts smacking seven bells out of dough, not from genuine interest, or because they want to join an honourable profession, but purely to secure a vital badge, is hard to stomach.

A portfolio of five or more GCSEs can offer breadth - maths, English, a foreign language, science, history, music, ICT. A programme on baking would struggle to match this, even though it can embrace aspects of science, maths, foreign languages even. "Cinq croissants, bitte" may cover a couple of languages, but it is hardly systematic, so although such a course may be deemed to be equivalent in level, it is not the same in spirit.

Still, we must always make the best of modern trends, however odd, so I shall have to draw up my own GCSE-equivalent syllabuses to compete. They will offer a solution to every desperate school's problems.

My new company, ACME Leaguebusters Plc, will be producing a portfolio of brand new online courses worth multiple GCSEs in several fields.

These three examples show that each programme will genuinely cover at least five subject areas.

Course 7C - Sneezing (five GCSEs) How to inhale (science); how to exhale violently (additional science); the use of the handkerchief (citizenship); social class and the deployment of the sleeve (sociology); what to do if you sneeze over somebody (personal and social education).

Course 13B - Navel contemplation (six GCSEs) How many navels have you got? (maths); why do you have a navel? (biology); where is your navel? (geography); did Julius Caesar have a navel? (history); can you make your navel jiggle up and down? (PE and dance).

Course 27A - Politics (a whole baccalaureate) Plan an initiative (art and design); announce that the cost is going to be half of what it will eventually be (creative accounting); make everyone do it, whether they want to or not (robotics); draft a press release saying it is a success when it isn't (modern fiction); find three synonyms for "spiv'"(English).

At last, a solution that fits the problem. We at ACME Leaguebusters will leave no stone unturned until every school is top of the league and the whole system finally implodes.

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