Schools are for learning; they are not qualification factories

There has been a lot in the news recently about which books pupils should study for GCSE English literature. However, I would argue that there shouldn’t be a GCSE in English literature. That’s not to say that there should be no reading or studying of books at school; it’s just that 16-year-olds don’t need a qualification in it. In fact, the studying of books isn’t so important in my view. I think it’s good to encourage young people to get into books and read, but we have to be careful not to turn the whole thing into a process that potentially takes the fun out of it and could put young people off reading.

The ability to study and analyse literature isn’t an essential skill that requires everyone to have a qualification in it. English literature is a subject that I think pupils should be able to choose whether to study or not, having initially got into reading without added pressure. But it’s not just English literature that I’m picking on here. That was just my way of getting this post started. It’s the whole GCSE system. We end up with a whole load of “qualifications” that mean nothing other than in bulk as the total number of GCSEs that we received. Employers might, for example, ask for 5 GCSEs but without specifying the subjects (apart from maybe maths and English), as if they are interchangeable tokens rather than being genuine qualifications in their own right.

Children’s education is not for future employers to judge them on. Children deserve to be educated for their own benefit, without fear of failure, or added pressure from the idea that education is a competition. Education, as much as possible, should be an enjoyable learning experience, without unnecessary added pressure. And qualifications should be things that qualify you to do something. Given that most GCSEs are not that, they have no real need to exist. Obviously at some stage, many people will study for qualifications that have meaning in and of themselves, and there is likely to be a competitive element. But there is no need to introduce this any earlier than necessary. Schools obviously have their own internal exams, which may have a competitive element, but at least it’s a competition that has no far-reaching consequences.

Schools should be able to teach a wider variety of things, without worrying about having to stick to the narrow syllabuses of the few subjects that have been arbitrarily designated to be GCSE subjects. We need to learn more about politics, current affairs, how the tax system works, philosophy, evolution etc. I’m not saying it should be completely freeform, but it should cover a much wider area, and with a lot more emphasis on engaging pupils in discussion and debate. The more engaging it is, the more likely people are to benefit from it and remember it at a later date. The idea is to encourage pupils to want to learn more, not for them to consider the learning banked once they’ve received a certificate, encouraging them to never think about that subject again.

To pick on another subject, just learning about a narrow piece of history for two years doesn’t mean someone is somehow qualified in history. It would be much more rewarding and useful to learn about a much wider range of history, without the extra worry of whether you have managed to analyse it properly and whether you can write good essays in it under exam conditions. Once pupils have a wider base of historical knowledge and context, they can decide whether they want to pursue it at a more academic level.

Obviously it is good to enhance one’s analytical abilities at an early age, but this is a transferable skill. I am advocating that children should be encouraged to use and develop their critical thinking abilities throughout their school lives. To speak from my own experiences, I never really engaged very well with any of the “essay” subjects at school, so my essay skills were never properly developed. Whereas if we were encouraged to write essays and develop our analytical skills per se in a more relaxed environment, I think my skills would have developed much better. For example, schools could have more class debates on subjects that are directly relevant to pupils and more likely to engage them. Whenever we did these at school, they were few and far between, and seen as a treat in addition to our “proper” learning.

In order to make school more engaging, there needs to be more emphasis on the relevance and application of subjects. There has been a recent rise in interest in maths and science, arguably due to the “Brian Cox effect”, where such subjects have had exposure on television. These subjects can be made to look far more appealing by showing videos of the cutting edge and of outside relevance, rather than merely proceeding through the work one step at a time, with no idea of where it’s going or of any application. Simply learning mathematical formulae, for example, can become dry and boring, and if it’s a case of doing more of the same throughout without any vision of an end goal, it can put people off. To be told in the abstract that a subject is useful isn’t enough. It makes sense to talk frequently about specific uses for skills gained, and to show videos of programmes such as BBC’s Horizon, where the end result of these skills are demonstrated, and also to use the skills in more practical situations at school. And with science in particular, pupils need to learn that it isn’t simply three separate disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. Science is much bigger than that. It is about the scientific method in general, and this can be applied to any real-world situation where someone wants to test a hypothesis.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t have any formal exams at all. But I think it’s important to distinguish between subjects that pupils need to be proficient practitioners in and subjects that it is interesting and useful to learn about. English and maths are two subjects where pupils need to reach a certain level for their later lives, and this needs to be tested.

Languages are also a practical skill, but the level reached at GCSE is not really enough to warrant any sort of qualification. Obviously with no GCSE results in most subjects, sixth forms would have less information about which pupils to accept for A-level subjects. However, I think A-levels should be open to whoever wants to do them, and schools and colleges shouldn’t be able to dictate what subjects pupils are allowed to do because they are worrying about league tables. Pupils would still know which are their strong subjects anyway from assessments at school, and it is likely that most would pursue their stronger subjects anyway. But that should be up to them.

I think at the age of 16, there should be formal examination in English and maths. These would be examinations with no coursework. Anyone of any age who doesn’t have a qualification in either subject would also be able to simply apply to take the exam, like they would with a driving test. For example, an adult who has been out of the education system for years, but can use English well, should have no problem walking off the street and taking the English exam. That’s all the exam should be about: the ability to use the language. And like driving tests, these exams would be retakable without limit, so there would be less pressure in a given sitting. This is because it is about reaching a certain standard. It doesn’t matter how long or how many goes it takes; as long as someone reaches the required standard, then they should be awarded the qualification. The same argument applies for keeping A-levels with retakable modules, rather than having one big exam at the end.

As for exams and coursework in general, if an answer requires more than two or possibly three paragraphs, I would argue that it shouldn’t be in an exam. Being able to write and structure an essay in exam conditions is a skill in itself, so those that are good at it have a big advantage in all subjects that they take. Essays are for using deeper understanding and analytical skills in a subject, and these are best measured outside the pressure of an exam. This is what coursework is for. So while I would have exams for maths and English GCSEs, the higher up the academic ladder you go, the less emphasis there should be on them.

Formal qualifications in a subject are only needed if someone is going to undertake something that actually requires the knowledge that the qualification implies. The school system needs to use them sparingly, to prevent them from being unfairly used against people at a later date. I am not saying that schools shouldn’t have any exams in other subjects. They are useful to see how pupils are progressing. But they do not need to be part of any permanent record that people have to take with them into their future lives. This would all free up school to be a place of learning, rather than a rigid training ground towards specific qualifications, which are often of no use or interest in later life. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be strict guidelines of what schools should teach. There should, and there should still be regular assessments of schools to make sure they are doing things properly.

There are a few other items I want to cover before I finish:

There needs to be better regulation and more limitation of homework. There should be a maximum time pupils are expected to spend on it regardless of whether someone has finished all the allocated work. While stronger pupils may breeze through the work and have the rest of their evenings to themselves, pupils who struggle can end up spending their whole evenings trying to finish their work. Even an adult job is normally over the second you walk out the door. The importance of a good work/life balance is clearly at least as important for pupils at school as it is for adults at work. The school day is long and some of that can be set aside for independent work.

I would abolish detention, whether at lunchtime or after school. While there needs to be ways of dealing with unruly pupils, this is not the way to do it. Just like employees in a job, pupils at school are entitled to their time off, and conflating work and free time is not a good policy. Regarding discipline in general, I would also want to see the end of arbitrary punishments handed down by individual teachers on a whim. Schools should have systems where pupils can have representation from other pupils or a neutral teacher when being disciplined. As a rule of thumb, if an employer wouldn’t get away with something, then a school shouldn’t be able to either.

I don’t necessarily think it’s unreasonable for schools to have a uniform for pupils to wear. However, while schools may want all their pupils to wear this uniform, they should have limited powers of sanction for those that do not conform, since in the general scheme of things it is not that important. They can, of course, write to the pupil’s parents if they wish to do so. There have been stories of pupils being sent home from their GCSE exams (warning: Daily Mail link) for not having the correct uniform. This is clearly ridiculous. It’s a matter of what is more important.

Exercise is very important at school, but pupils do not all get the same amount out of PE lessons. There needs to be more emphasis on exercise for those who aren’t necessarily good at team sports. Weaker players often just wasting their time avoiding the ball, and not really getting any exercise. This is pointless.

I am against selective schools, such as grammar schools. I do not think it is right to crudely partition pupils at the age of 11 in this manner. Pupils should be streamed within schools in specific subjects, so that pupils are in classes where everyone is at a similar level. But this would be a fluid situation, so that pupils can move up or down according to their current needs. I do not think it is right or useful to once-and-for-all irreversibly separate children at the age of 11 into those who are “able” and those who are “not able”. Potential can easily be missed and, in any case, pupils are often better in some areas than others, so it does not make sense to separate children across all subjects in this way. I also don’t think it’s particularly healthy to categorise children as able or not able. On top of that, it puts an unnecessary amount of pressure on children by introducing this competitive element to education at such an early stage.

I have already covered this here, but there should be no “faith” schools or generally schools with their own agendas. Schools need to be strictly regulated to ensure that they are all pulling in the same direction and, as much as possible, that they are of the same standard.

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