Let's break free of GCSE constraints

31st August 2012 at 01:00
We are being forced down narrow paths of knowledge, argues sixth-former Noa Lessof Gendler

The arguments in favour of replacing GCSEs seem simple enough and try to address the problems experienced by students and parents across the country: GCSEs are too easy, they don't encourage independent thinking and study, they don't stretch or challenge students. Indeed, I sat my GCSEs just 12 months ago and found each of my 10 two-year courses agonisingly uninspiring.

My own experience was based upon ticking boxes, and we literally did just that. Even art, which was advertised as an independent-minded option, through which we would follow our own interests and tastes, forced us to work by completing "assessment objectives". Achieving 95 per cent in each of the four objectives would give us the A* that our school desired for us.

To ensure that we fulfilled every requirement perfectly and subsequently topped the league tables, a list was drawn up specifying every page we would complete in our sketchbooks: first a watercolour drawing of items in the British Museum, then an annotated photocopy of said watercolour, then a series of small photocopies of the watercolour arranged in a mirroring pattern, then a screen-printed tessellation created from our watercolours, then a page on Rembrandt and his etching technique ...

This is the perfect embodiment of the constraints presented by GCSEs. They force students into narrow alleyways of know-ledge instead of encouraging exploration and discovery. It was my head of art who presented us with the list and not the exam board itself, but it just goes to show how even passionate eccentrics like my teacher could be intimidated into boring grey corners by the institution of GCSEs. Given the choice, I'm sure he would have given us each a sketchbook and a pencil and sent us off into the wide world, surfacing occasionally to recommend a different angle or to point us towards some obscure and irrelevant exhibition in a warehouse in Croydon. As it happened, we sat in a classroom for two years and did exactly the same thing as everyone else in the year.

Perhaps a new curriculum with a new set of exams and a blank slate on which a progressive view of education could be created is what we need. Indeed, the best way to implement change is to shake things up, and I'm all for an educational revolution.

Another massive benefit of the plan would be the creation of one national examining board and the scrapping of the competing, bureaucratic, disorganised boards that schools choose from at the moment. But Michael Gove has another plan for secondary schools - the return to O levels - and this one smells ominously of the old-style Tory segregation techniques. I am speaking, of course, of the hideous plan to tell pupils at the age of 14 whether they are clever enough to pursue a stimulating, exciting route through education or whether they are stupid and therefore cannot be high achievers. The Tories have proved time and time again that stupid people can have successful careers, and this is another example of their narrow-mindedness.

At 14, I was an arrogant, lazy little sod - I'm pleased that no one decided my future for me based on my character and academic achievements at that time, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. If we want to create a hard-working, independent-thinking, engaging culture for young people then we need to teach them to be just that, and telling them that they are thick at a young age is never going to persuade them to stay in full-time education and reach their potential.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present my own plans for the renovated examination system: design a more creative curriculum, introduce a national exam board and write tougher papers that will challenge students to think for themselves and use their initiative. But by no means tell some of them that they are secondary to the others - how will this encourage a generation that values education and tells their children in turn how important learning is? The last thing this country needs is another barrier to divide the classes. And, in the words of writer Max Ehrmann, "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter". Not the path to choose, in my opinion.

Noa Lessof Gendler is a sixth-former at a London secondary school.

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