GCSE reforms: shrewd move or bad joke?

No government can feel satisfied with itself until it has “overhauled” the education system. This one is no different, but is it going in the right direction?

The education secretary, Michael Gove, has a plan for GCSEs meant to make Britain more competitive in the world and tackle ‘grade inflation’. The concern is that Britain’s education system is falling behind – the Chinese work harder, the Americans are more innovative, the Germans more logical and the Scandianvians are just better. And there have been more passes and higher grades every year that GCSEs have been taken since their invention in 1988.

So what’s going to change?

  1. Bye bye coursework. GCSEs always used to contain a big coursework element – essays that the teacher did for you – and were modular. If you failed a part of the course, known as a module, you could just take it again. Exams were split across the two years of study. Gove’s changes mean that coursework will be reduced and pretty much everything will go back to either the old fashioned memory test at the end of two years of study (age 16) or invigilated essays.
  2. Great Britain will rise again. The content of courses like English and History will focus much more on Britain. Students will have to study a Shakespeare play, for example, and learn about a period of British history in great depth. Maths and the sciences will be tweaked to include more of the modern stuff – genetics, biotech and statistics.
  3. There are only so many stars you can add to an A. The old A-G grading system is being chucked in favour of grades 8 (high) to 1 (low). The boundaries and criteria will be tougher.

NB: These changes only apply to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have control over their own education systems.

Will it work?

Kind of. Tougher grading is good – there are so many people with high grades that employers are resorting to other things to decide if you’re a good investment. Top universities pretty much ignore anyone with less than twenty A*s.

My feeling about patriotic stuff is that actually it’s a step backwards. The world is more globalised than ever and knowing about it is important. As I pointed out the other day, China has at least 11 cities with bigger populations than London and more money sitting in their central bank in foreign currencies than three and a half times yearly UK government expenditure (to say nothing of Chinese government expenditure). Most of Britain has no idea. Why should they, you ask? Because the next generation will trade more with China than they will with America.

What about the death of coursework? That’s more fifty-fifty. People cheated with coursework. A lot. So did teachers. It gave people a chance to do things at leisure and nick stuff off the internet. You could finish a piece of coursework without having actually learned anything. But as the Guardian pointed out, “for a cohort who will arrive at work with more information in their pocket than Encyclopedia Britannica ever contained, in the form of a smartphone, it is impossible to believe that the only challenge that should count is the challenge of pitting one’s memory against the blank page.”

Exams are a memory test, and when you have 12 in a week it’s bloody hard to remember everything. Those blessed with a good short-term memory win the day, with no better skills than the sieve-minded for going into the world of work.

Bottom line: I hope you remembered all this, because there will be a test in two years.

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