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Work a while in their shoes

Beech Hall School headmaster, James Allen, has sat the 2018 GCSE Maths and English Language exams. Here are his views on the the reformed GCSEs

Posted by Julian Owen | July 05, 2018 | Teaching

It was an interesting and not-entirely pleasant experience joining pupils in Upper V in my quest to gain two more GCSEs. It is 31 years since I took English, maths and French O-level, and 30 years since I completed the set with the rest of my GCSEs and AO-levels in 1988. Just as our current pupils are the experimental babies in the new examination system and number grades from 9 to 1, I was part of that experimental cohort of pupils experiencing GCSEs for the very first time. 

By putting myself in my pupils’ shoes to experience their arduous revision timetables, challenging lessons and more rigorous examinations, I have been able to explore and question the purpose of the existing GCSE examination system. Could this be much more valuable for real-life situations such as job applications, future careers and further study? 

Not only has preparing for and sitting the GCSE exams enabled me to understand what the pupils are going through academically but, psychologically too. Thirty years on, the experience is no more pleasant, no less anxiety-inducing and no less painful. I have been ‘fortunate’ to experience the worry about a lack of revision, the things I am confident that I don’t know, the things that I thought I understood and clearly don’t, and the general feeling of unease and panic as you settle into the beginning of the exam. I am only taking two GCSEs totalling five exams, yet many of our pupils will be sitting 20-plus exam papers over the course of five weeks. 

During my studies, I have discovered a mismatch between teaching essential skills and teaching children to simply tick the exam mark scheme boxes, something which they are often doing without actually understanding their answer. The process of studying and assessing can be made much more meaningful to the pupil and their future endeavours.  

I firmly believe that we need to prepare our pupils for further education and prospective careers, not just to pass their exams. Speaking and listening is a key skill in learning and life in general so, why does the compulsory GCSE speaking and listening assessment no longer carry any marks? Arguably there is difficulty in ensuring equality across schools, yet other practical subjects such as art, drama and design technology are moderated with external assessments. Why can we not do this with the speaking and listening assessments and give them that value?

Oral presentations are an important aspect throughout life and as educators we need to ensure that children are ready for this. We need to value the notion of a child learning to speak, not just coherently, but confidently too. If I can’t sell myself or my service as an education provider with confidence, I can’t do my job and that is applicable to interviews and other careers. We should be meaningfully assessing a child’s ability to speak convincingly. It is the wrong reasoning to make the assessment compulsory, but not purposeful to assessing the child’s ability. 

In my creative writing assessment, I expected my work to be commended as outstanding. However, I soon learnt from our English teacher than in order to secure extra marks I needed to use further linguistic techniques, for instance adding metaphors. The creative piece itself didn’t need any additions to enable to it read well and be a great piece of writing, yet the marking scheme did. The piece, as all assessments, was written in a pressurised environment working to a time limit, something which would not necessarily happen in a real-life scenario. 

In maths exams, is there any value in needing to remember how to execute a question? What is the exam actually assessing, the ability a child has to work out that mathematical question or memory? We should provide children with the means to do it in the exam to enable them to go through the process of working out the answer without needing to remember a formulation to do it, something which, in a real-life situation would be readily available. 

A couple of what I thought were tricky one-mark questions threw me to begin with in one of my maths exams and the ensuing panic caused me to make silly mistakes on subsequent questions. This heightened state of anxiety cannot be a productive way to assess someone. 

There is great value in making GCSE exams meaningful and purposeful to prepare children for their futures, rather than just passable by working to the mark scheme. 

Beech Hall School: beechhallschool.org

James Allen has a BA (ed) Hons, Education, English and Drama from the University of Exeter and an MA in Inclusive Education from Brunel University London

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