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GCSE trends give important lesson

By Danny Harrington

Two very interesting, though not directly related, articles appeared in The Guardian last week as GCSE results were released. They picked up on a couple of statistics which demonstrate issues we often have to deal with out here in Asia – ‘early’ sitting of examinations and choice of subjects for study.

Let’s deal with the latter first. Subject choice is often a heady mix of parental and teacher advice/imposition coupled with the restraints of a school’s administration set-up. As students we often feel left out of the equation. Now there is good reason not to just allow free-reign to teenagers choosing subjects – there will always be those looking for perceived easy options, or not considering the ramifications of their choices for future study pathways. Students need expert guidance, but hopefully it will given as a sensible outline of all the options and the possible outcomes.

In recent years, there has been a tendency to allow perhaps too many “soft” options. Now I know that media and general studies teachers the world over will, let’s say, not appreciate this, but the fact is that these subjects are less intellectually demanding than traditional academic subjects. By allowing children looking for an easy option to choose them we set them up for under achievement. Modern pedagogical theory has ascertained, as certainly as any social science can, that a broad, challenging curriculum for as long as possible produces the best outcome across a cohort. I believe that children have been allowed to take less demanding subjects because the state school system has demanded exam-results-based measures of quality and these subjects help increase the proportion of higher grades. It is the ultimate ironic outcome but devastatingly unfunny in that it impacts the future of so many children. The inability to see that children need to be taught how to learn and how to learn challenging ideas goes against the evidence that supports a broad curriculum and leads to too many children skulking in general studies classrooms being taught facts they could just as well pick up from the internet.

It is heartening therefore to see more UK children returning to academically challenging subjects at GCSE [ http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/23/pupils-returning-traditional-subjects-exam-board ] and recognising that tougher subjects help their career prospects even if they do not seem to be directly linked. One of my brothers took Theology ten years ago – highly unfashionable then and now – and has built a successful career in computer systems in the banking and finance sector. Why? Because the rigour and mental challenge of studying Theology with its combination of history and languages and logic plus philosophy will frankly set you up for anything later in life.

On to the second point. GCSE grades in the UK are slightly down on last year. The main claim is that the exams have been toughened up. I am not sure this makes sense as grades are standardised so that employers/other educators can compare year groups. So surely that means that this year the grades have been fixed downwards? Possibly, although I do think the questions looked more demanding this year as well. But The Guardian points out another hidden factor. At the sixteen year old cohort, grades have actually changed little. However, far more entrants this year were fifteen years old and they performed much worse, dragging the overall results down.
http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/22/gcse-pupils-damaging-exam-targets ]

At ITS we are often asked to allow students to take IGCSEs [and A-levels] “early”, meaning before the traditional mainstream school age of sixteen, or Year 11. We have no problem with allowing this in principle. But it has to be a sensible decision made on the basis of the abilities and development of each individual. Parents especially need to understand that while Maths might be a no brainer, Geography might be an entirely different prospect. Younger students especially will struggle with certain ideas in social sciences because they simply do not have enough experience of the world and human behaviour to provide context to their learning. It is not just a question of learning the ‘stuff’, students really do need to understand it if they are going to do well in the exam. There is little point in doing an exam early if you are not going to do well at it.

Enquiries about IGCSE and A-levels with ITS Education Asia in Hong Kong or online:
[email protected] or [email protected]

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