On the subject of easy exams

Yesterday, thousands of pupils across the country received their GCSE results. As usual the press endeavoured to undermine the hard work that had gone into these exams by telling the world that the examinations were easy and that employers didn’t think that pupils with these GCSEs were able to read and write. A man I had previously harboured great respect for (Mr Tomlinson) even suggested that you could get a GCSE in English without the basic skills of literacy.

Several thoughts crossed my mind during this rather busy day:

1. Most of the pupils I know who are leaving school at 16 to seek employment are doing so because there GCSE results look like this:

Art: E
English:G
Maths: F
Science: U
etc….

These are the pupils who have been failed by an education system that didn’t suit them or their needs. Or who were too damn lazy (and far too busy being cool) to bother. These are the children who may have problems with basic literacy and numeracy. These are the pupils that you might have to re-train when they arrive at your door. (the kind of pupils who go on to work in sports shops and write signs like “Sale on wimins tops”
If you were looking to employ someone with Gs and Fs surely you would realise that ( in some cases) you might be faced with an issue. Employers can’t seriously be suggesting that someone with a C grade GCSE cannot write or read extremely well. That just isn’t possible.

There is a problem perhaps with the subject matter chosen in English. We don’t, for example, teach pupils the correct way to write reports, present data and facts, write a business proposal, classify and order stock etc. They can write a letter to the head explaining why they think they should do a Saturday job but (and this is where I used to agree with Tomlinson) we should have some more relevant subject matter for the young adults about to leave and join the world of employment.

2. The examinations are NOT getting easier. The goal posts have changed a little (I mean grade boundaries) but the exams are not easier. In fact the amount of information my students have to remember and work through for their examination is frighteningly high. The exam, in my view, should be testing them on their ability to analyse a poem or another text. I try and give the pupils the skills to do that even if the poem is unseen. In fact, why don’t they have to write an analysis of an unseen poem? Instead, in class, they cover over 45 poems and have to write an essay on just 5 of them.

The teaching is improving. I am certain of that. I am worried however that these pupils who do achieve high grades (I can only talk about English)and are leaving with a C grade or higher don’t have the skills suggested by their certificate. If I asked them to write an essay about an aspect of a novel, gave them 4 weeks to read the book, analyse the passage and do some research on the author and the SHC would they would look at me in horror and ask: Can’t we read the book together? Haven’t you got a worksheet that highlights the important bits in the passage? Can’t you just tell me about the author and the SHC? Have you got an essay plan? Can you give me the first line of each paragraph? Etc…

Perhaps the reason why a lot of pupils are leaving schools with excellent grades and very few skills is partly due to the amount of pressure applied on teachers and Heads to gain those grades. At the end of the day, as I keep protesting, a Grade means very little if it isn’t your grade. I would much rather a student get a C because they are able to do those things listed above to a certain level than do all the running around for them. I don’t want to take the magic out of their experience and hand them a piece of paper with a grade on it which tells them more about how much they can remember and glean from me than it does about the skills they possess in English.

Take the pressure off. Look at society and work out why we’re in a mess. By cheating aren’t we undermining the hard work of the pupils who really can achieve an A* all by themselves?
Well done 11A1;)

5 Comments

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  1. UncleBogus 14 years ago

    I saw a news item on the tellybox the other day about how grammar schools are bad bad bad things and should be abolished. Got me thinking, though.

    What if comprehensives were abolished? What if we went back to an 11+ system, where grammar schools took the pick of the bunch and taught them the usual academic curriculum (poetry, literature, trigonometry, plant biology, etc), and the secondary schools took the rest and taught them skills that actually related to their abilities and that will help them find good jobs (writing reports, budgeting, working with currency, learning that “Carrot’s 50p” means that a single carrot possesses 50p, not that one can buy multiple carrots for the price of 50p).

    I know this sounds elitist, but what is the point in teaching Shakespeare to a child is never going to read any serious literature ever again, and who’s appreciation of culture extends to the latest summer blockbuster from Hollywood? My experience in school taught me that children who don’t want to analyse poetry won’t do it. They won’t be grateful that their horizons are being expanded, and they will do their damndest to ruin the experience for anyone who is interested.

    Inclusive schools, in my opinion, don’t improve the skills of the less able pupils; rather, they bore them silly with irrelevant academia and hold back the more able students whilst the slower children try to catch up. Everyone ends up frustrated – classes are too slow for the bright children, too quick for the less able children, and (I’d guess) a nightmare for the teachers who have to deal with classes full of bored or confused children.

    One refrain that is often heard at school is, “I don’t need to learn this, I’m never going to use it.” When do these kids ever use Shakespeare? When do they use trigonometry? So why on earth are we teaching it to them when they’re not going to use the skills they’ve begrudgingly acquired, and which atrophy from disuse as soon as they hit 16?

    So, to relate this back to the blog entry, why not teach the kids who are destined to leave school at 16 with a bunch of Gs, Fs and Us some skills that will help them when they leave? Abandon academia, which they can’t get to grips with anyway, and teach them practical skills that will help them in the workplace? In short, re-instate the grammar/secondary system, and teach to the level of the class, rather that the level of some arbitrary “average” child to the detriment of all involved?

    (I’m now expecting a vitriolic response, ‘cuz ah reckin you’re very anti-elitism…)

  2. UncleBogus 14 years ago

    And 10 points for the first person to spot the misuse of an apostrophy in my post.

  3. Mochinbach 14 years ago

    Actually, there is some truth to what you are saying but, thank fully, it only applies to a very small number of pupils.

    Their perception is altered too though. They’re doing it because they know they need a good GCSE and very rarely for any other reason.

    I’ll let Span find the apostrophe ! She’ll like that 😉

  4. UncleBogus 14 years ago

    But what if you could get a GCSE in business reports? In writing them, reading them, interpreting them, presenting them to your boss? Or a GCSE in general office skills (word processing, spreadsheets, Microsoft Office, printers, filing, basic report writing, time management, presentations, client interaction abilities)? Kids with no academic interest would be able to get a vocational qualification that would stand them in good stead for the future. No mucking around with William Golding or Thomas Hardy.

    The kids would know that they needed to get good GCSEs, but they’d also be able to see the point of them.

    The government would be happier, too, because everyone could get half a dozen GCSEs, which is their aim*, but they wouldn’t need to turn the exams into a joke in which the pupils are given all of the answers by their teachers, which is what the government have so far succeeded in doing.

    *Government: “Hey, we can fudge the system so that everyone gets a qualification!”

    Me: “Yes, but if everyone has one, the gualifications are meaningless.”

    Government: (Thinks for a minute) “Hey, we can fudge the system so that everyone gets a qualification!”

  5. SpanAir 14 years ago

    10 points for using the word ‘vitriolic’ – I enjoyed that very much.

    Now onto the hunt for that apostrophe……

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