More GCSE nonsense
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Enjoying school?


Through being a member of the Refracted online group, I learnt last week about a University of Bristol study investigating the relationship between school enjoyment at age six and later educational achievement.

What I find interesting about this study is that the only metric used as an indicator of educational success/achievement is GCSE performance. And we nearly always find this exclusive focus on GCSE results in England and Wales when attempts are made to evaluate the educational success of teenagers or to compare the performance of different secondary schools. But surely we must challenge the validity and appropriateness of using GCSE exam results as an indicator of accomplishment (by the pupil and/or the school). And the key question to ask is this: is the learning undertaken to achieve a good GCSE result of value in itself, or are we merely asking young people to play a game in order to climb life's greasy pole - a modern version of trial by ordeal? I believe it is the latter, because we know that for the majority of young people in the majority of GCSE subjects, the exams require them to memorise and regurgitate information that they will never, ever use in their life again after they leave the exam room.

In the very first paragraph of the Bristol paper we are told that "school enjoyment may represent a promising intervention target for improving educational outcomes." I do not question the study's statistical methodology, but there is an unexamined value statement here in the use of the phrase "promising intervention". It implies, at least to me, uncritical acceptance that improving GCSE performance is a worthwhile aim of education; and this is perhaps reinforced later in the paper when we read:

"Given the importance of having 5 + A*-C GCSE grades to progress into further education and enter skilled jobs in the labour market, lack of school enjoyment may provide an early indicator of pupils in need of more or better educational support."

I can, of course, understand why young people, their parents and their teachers feel obliged to worry about GCSEs (until the wretched things are abolished). But somebody has to have the courage and imagination to say, quite explicitly, that much of what GCSE exams test - memorisation and regurgitation of information that will never be used again outside the exam room – is utterly irrelevant to whether of not the candidate can, for example, undertake "skilled jobs in [today's] labour market". I think Judith Carlisle, Headmistress of Oxford High School, came close to showing this courage and imagination when she said to her students:

"In five years’ time, no one will give a damn which GCSE [grade] you got in French.”

Let me offer this (rather obvious) hypothesis to explain the correlation found in the Bristol study between school enjoyment and GCSE performance. I suggest that some children know, at least tacitly, from the word go that what happens in school is not really for them. So they do not enjoy school at the age of six; and ten years later they perceive, quite correctly in my view, that it is not worthwhile devoting time and effort to memorising the formula for the surface area of a trapezium.

Image based on public domain photo by R. K. Singam


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