Headteachers and education leaders are queuing up these days to decry the paucity of the educational experience that GCSEs have become. The list of detractors gained important allies recently when heads from the Girls’ Schools Association – academically selective girls’ schools that have traditionally hoovered up multiple GCSEs for their pupils and helped to create the A*/9 logjam – described them as relics from the Victorian era.
Lord (Kenneth) Baker, Dr Frankenstein of the 1988 Education Reform Act that gave the country the national curriculum and GCSEs, acknowledges now that his creature has become a daemon. The challenge to overdue education reform is that a spurious neo-traditionalist orthodoxy permeates Westminster.
The "reformed" GCSEs were designed to be more "rigorous" than the specifications they replaced; modular courses and coursework out and terminal exams taken after a two-year course in, or rather, back in. It wasn’t so much reforming as retrofitting the teaching and learning exchange in the classroom to replicate the kind of curriculum that Michael Gove would have enjoyed in his Scottish independent school in the 1980s. Intelligence, and the validation that came with success, was about learning things and remembering them, and then writing them out.
This kind of pedagogy is woefully unfit for the contemporary world of work; collaboration, project work, creative problem-solving, design thinking, innovation, this is what employers expect, and this is partly why selection tools like gamification in job applications and selection are being adopted by employers, and qualifications ignored.
What use are GCSEs today?
If all the applicants have 9s at GCSE and A*s at A level then what use, in the purest utilitarian sense, are those qualifications? It’s increasingly evident that GCSEs don’t help universities to discriminate between applicants who can stay the course of a three or four-year degree and those who can’t. It’s easy to make results improve if you test less and teach it more often. But the obsession with assessment leads to spurious claims about rising standards, and doesn’t measure anything that expresses the pupil experience.
And most redundant of all is the Department for Education’s aim "to ensure our academic standards match and keep pace with key comparator nations", which, in effect, means ministers telling us to be more like Finland. However, Pasi Sahlberg, former director-general at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, argues that Finland’s success was not achieved on the back of an exclusionary focus on academic achievement and a Stem obsession. Rather, he observes that the school system “should be designed to inspire students and to enable them to lead happy, fulfilled lives both at work and outside the workplace”.
Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate is a performance measure masquerading as a curriculum. By including the word "baccalaureate", the aim was no doubt to pretend that this was a forward-thinking, radical curriculum that would address the perceived problem of early specialisation in UK schools. In fact, it’s a wrapper with a French word on it and inside it’s the same old fish and chips.
Magnus Bashaarat is head of Bedales school in Hampshire