A year or so ago a neighbour told me of her concerns about her 16-year-old daughter. The girl's ambition to become a vet was in jeopardy because she had failed the maths GCSE exam. That got me thinking about GCSE maths and veterinary medicine. I accept, of course, that a vet must have a certain capability to think scientifically, but does a vet need to be able to solve quadratic equations? Almost certainly she does not. Does a vet need to have memorised the formula for the surface area of a trapezium? Of course not. Does a vet need to understand unique factorisation theorem? Again, no. So just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to the practice of veterinary medicine? That leads to a much broader question: just how relevant is the GCSE maths syllabus to anything that the majority of young people who take the exam might do subsequently in their lives, regardless of the vocational path they might follow?
"Not very" seems to be the answer. And one would surely give the same answer if asked about the relevance for most young people of most of what they are required to commit to memory and regurgitate in GCSE exams generally, not just maths.
Questioning the relevance of GCSE exams is hardly new. The 2004 Tomlinson report proposed a series of radical educational changes, including abolishing both GCSEs and A-levels. (But the Labour Government At the time lacked the courage to implement the Tomlinson proposals.) A few years later the visionary educator Guy Claxton gave a clear explanation in his book What's the Point of School? of the educational damage done by schools focusing on GCSE performance. And a recent poll by the Association of School and College Leaders of 799 head teachers found that 86% felt that GCSE exams should either be reformed or scrapped. Perhaps most tellingly of all, Lord Kenneth Baker, who introduced GCSEs back in the 1980s, said last year:
"I think that they’ve run their course now. I’m in favour of them not continuing."
With this degree of unanimity it is hard to see how GCSEs can last much longer. The wheels of reform can often grind slowly but I confidently predict that no child currently at primary school in Britain will suffer the nonsense of being obliged to take GCSEs (or any other age-specific standardised exams) at the age of 16, In other words they will be gone by 2026 at the latest.
But what, you may ask, will replace GCSEs? How will we be able to record and report on the capability and achievement of young people? I will answer this question in a future post on this blog, but the good news is that alternative - and much better - systems for assessing capability and achievement already exist, and they have been tried and tested. Where do we find these systems? We just need to open our eyes and look outside the school gates!