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June 2021

More GCSE nonsense

An opinion piece in yesterday's Guardian newspaper reminds us of the stress and heartache that young people, their parents and their teachers will face when this year's GCSE and A-level results are, once again, pulled out of a magical hat following an opaque process of so-called 'teacher assessment'.

So it is quite understandable that there may be huge sighs of relief from young people, parents and teachers if and when it becomes possible to revert to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, rather than the present pandemic arrangements, which are widely seen as unfair.

But it would be quite wrong to think that the normal exam processes for 16- and 18-year olds are in any way fair. Our system of GCSEs and A-levels is demonstrably unfair, unscientific, and unfit for purpose – and it causes a huge amount of stress and mental ill-health for young people.

To appreciate this just consider two imaginary 16-year-olds. Student X is awarded a grade 9 (the highest possible grade) in their GCSE maths exam and Student Y is awarded a grade 5 (equivalent to something between a C and a B on the old system). What might this difference in grades tell us:

Perhaps X has more mathematical capability than Y;

Or perhaps the two students are equally good at maths, but X had worked harder than Y in preparing for the exam;

Or perhaps X had a more efficient and experienced teacher than Y;

Or maybe X had parents who were willing and able to pay for private tutoring and Y did not;

Or maybe Y was suffering from a bad episode of hay fever on the day of the exam and X was not.

The difference in grades could be a result of any of the above factors or a combination of them. So in reality the results tell us precisely nothing about the mathematical capability of X and Y, particularly as the pass mark for the exam is so low that you can get more than half the question wrong and still pass! A key aspect of science is that we need to control variables if we are to draw any meaningful conclusions from our data, but I have just shown that a host of uncontrolled variables that can affect exam results; so they are scientifically unreliable and invalid.

And it's even worse than this, because we know that much of the material that a young person will have to learn in order to jump through the GCSE maths hoop will never, ever, ever be of use again to them after they leave the exam room – what a waste of human effort!

So rather than return to 'normal' GCSEs and A-levels, we need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to ditch these outmoded ways of assessing capability and to implement alternative methods of recording and reporting what young people have learnt and what they are capable of doing. The good news is that these alternative methods of assessing capability and achievement already exist – but they are little used within schools.

In a future blog post I will explain what these alternatives are.

Image based on Photo by Unknown Author licensed under CC BY-NC

Can learning be "delivered" and "received"?


During an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme yesterday Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter said:

"… around two million children received no learning during that first lockdown period."

(You can hear the interview by listening to from 2:10:00.)

I was stuck by the bizarre suggestion that learning is something an individual can "receive". Another misleading verb sometimes used in connection with learning is "deliver". Donald H Taylor pointed this out in a blog post several years ago  in which he wrote:

"‘How should we deliver learning?’ We shouldn’t. Or rather, we can’t."

The words "deliver" and "receive" can only make sense in relation to learning if one imagines the learner as the passive recipient of something. For the last 14 months I have ordered almost all my groceries online and they have duly arrived at our front door. My provisions have been "delivered", and I have "received" them without me having to make any effort at all (apart from opening the door). But learning is not like that. Real learning involves commitment and active participation on the part of the learner. To use the words "deliver" and "receive" in relation to this process is dangerously misleading because it suggests the learner is passive rather than actively engaged in the learning process. It is perhaps particularly unfortunate to adopt the "we deliver, you receive" idea of learning in the context of the perceived need for young people to "catch up" with the schooling they have missed during the COVID pandemic. It is surely dangerous to believe that young people just need longer school days and/or additional tutoring to compensate for school closures, and that everything in the world of education will then be fine again.

But everything in the world of education is far from fine. As Simon Jenkins wrote in an opinion piece in today's Guardian newspaper:

"… the sadness of the Collins plan [for educational recovery] is that he did not seize the opportunity to propose a revision, even a radical experiment in British education… Schooling today is an introverted pursuit. It answers to an exam board and a minister, but not to a community. That is the opportunity lockdown missed."

Jenkins also identifies the need for "education for life, for jobs, self-reliance, relationships, health, money and citizenship". That is the sort of real learning that cannot be passively "received" from the educational equivalent of a grocery delivery.