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When ten is not a magic number

With exams on the horizon, James Williams questions our fixation on the target of 10 GCSEs. As the exam season gets under way, senior managers around the country will be asking how they can improve their schools' performance, not least in the numbers reaching the magic 10 "good" passes.

I do not feel, however, we are tackling such issues in the most sensible way; merely in the easiest way.

So, what are schools currently doing? There are revision classes, revision notes, practice questions, extra sessions at lunch times and after school, holiday work . . . All this of course involves extra work for staff and extra stress for pupils.

I have lost count of the number of times that pupils have said they cannot come to my extra session because it competes with one being held by another department. There are just too many subjects to fit extra sessions into a school week without clashes.

What effect does this have on our pupils? It is almost inevitable that some will play the percentage game. They judge what has to be done and they will accept a standard that may not be their best but will not handicap them too much. The pressure on these pupils is even greater when they try the percentage game with course work, with the staff knowing that they can do better.

Is this the way to successfully educate pupils? We are expecting them to give l00 per cent in up to 10 subjects without stopping to think whether or not they can cope with that number or, indeed, if 10 is necessary for the future of that pupil.

How do they manage? My instinct tells me that too many students rely on being given the answers and feel that by simply attending revision classes they have completely prepared for that subject. In doing so much for pupils in the run up to GCSE, are we really aiding their understanding - or are we simply overloading them with undigested information: cramming?

We are left with two major questions: First, why 10 GCSEs? And second, is this too much for an average pupil to cope with, and - as a consequence - are we doing too much for our pupils in the run up to examinations, when they should be doing more to aid their own understanding of a subject?

By reducing the number of GCSEs that a pupil takes from 10 as a norm to eight, could free up some teaching time. This, in turn, could reduce the need for extra sessions and create structured revision time in the curriculum.

In my own subject of science, for example, I do not believe that every pupil benefits from taking double science: there are cases where single science would be more than adequate for those experiencing difficulty in the subject, a fact recognised by Dearing in his review of key stage 4.

There should also be a programme within each school aimed at teaching examination skills, note taking and how to revise successfully. This will aid pupils in the run up to public examinations, but will only work if what I term a work ethic is instilled early on, beginning in Year 7.

Pupils must learn not to take anything for granted, not to expect that they will be given everything on a plate. They must learn to work for themselves.

After all, there are many thousands of young people out there for whom 10 is not, nor has ever been, a magic number.

James Williams is head of the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey.

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