Is there too much focus on GCSE exams rather than learning?

How do you feel about our exam system or should that be about our education system? This article, which first appeared in The Guardian, suggests that the removal of coursework from GCSEs leaves students unprepared for further study.

Focus on exams or learning

Photograph: courtesy of Alamy 

Let us know what you think, once you have read the article.

Via Secret Teacher: the focus on exams is failing GCSE students
Pupils are being left without basic research and essay-writing skills and ill-equipped for the rigours of further study and working life
‘Changes to GCSE assessment have created a system that rewards the ability to cram in as much information as possible and regurgitate it under exam conditions.’

After three years of all-exam GCSE qualifications, their impact is becoming clear. The leap from GCSE to A-level has always been challenging but it is now even more so as many sixth-formers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the depth and breadth of learning required to do coursework at A-level.

I have seen sixth-formers cry when they have to come up with their own topic and text choices, conduct their own research and write up a final response. They have reached the age of 16 without developing the skills required to tackle the task. Their critical analysis, time-management and research capabilities simply aren’t there. And while internally assessed coursework is no longer part of GCSEs, it is worth up to 20% of an A-level qualification for some subjects.

Never has information been so easily and freely accessible, but most sixth-formers have no idea how to conduct the most basic online search for keywords, such as “critics, Macbeth”, or visit academic websites like Google Scholar.
I am not a Luddite. As a teacher, I experience on a daily basis the great advantages of accessing a huge range of information online. But I, like many of my generation, know how to conduct research with or without books.

Our school library stocks are increasingly whittled down in favour of computers. Teenagers today may be more tech savvy, but many lack essential study skills.

This is having a knock-on effect on universities – a recent study by the Cambridge Assessment exam board found that universities were having to run remedial courses to teach first-year degree students basic research and essay-writing skills.

Changes to GCSE assessment have created a system that rewards the ability to cram in as much information as possible and regurgitate it under exam conditions. It is not only unbalanced, it is also unfair and ineffective.

Teaching to the test is becoming the norm. In a 2015 study, the UK was found to be one of the world’s worst culprits for this style of teaching, leading to a noticeable drop in performance in literacy, maths and problem solving among 16-24-year-olds, despite 15-year-olds being close to average in those subjects.

I suffered terribly from exam nerves as a student, and coursework was a lifesaver. It took pressure off me in the exams and played to my strengths. I loved having the space to research a topic in depth, to plan, craft and write a critical and thorough response. The act of drafting and redrafting is a valuable skill in itself.

There is no time for revising and redrafting in an English exam. Even Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted, has warned that children’s chances of getting a “broad and balanced education” are at risk due to the GCSE reforms.
When asked which they’d prefer, my students give a mixed response. Some are delighted with the shift to all-exam assessment and others are dreading it. The NSPCC has reported a surge in the number of young people requesting help via their Childline support service, which it has attributed to exam stress.

Many schools start preparing pupils for their GCSEs in year 9, setting past exam paper questions in class, for homework and end-of-term tests, leaving any creativity at the classroom door. We are at risk of disengaging students from our subjects forever.

Controlled assessments, which were introduced to replace coursework in 2009, then scrapped by the then education secretary Michael Gove in 2013, were not perfect. They were a pain to administer and supervise, and were underpinned by woolly guidelines.

Critics, such as the OCR exam board, believed controlled assessments were vulnerable to abuse by schools that wanted to improve results, and they arguably carried too much weight. In English, they were worth up to 60% of the final grade.

But surely they could have been revised and updated rather than abandoned, so that those necessary study skills were preserved. A better system would have given teachers more control over how assessments are conducted, and awarded marks for research and planning, as well as the final piece. Instead, Gove threw out the baby with the bath water, leaving us with pupils who are ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of higher academic study and working life.

In a teach-to-the-test culture, there is little room for the type of creative tasks that encourage a real broadening of knowledge. Is this what we want for our pupils? Or are we committing the worst sin of all – putting children off learning?

Appeared in The Guardian on Saturday 10 March 2018

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