The questionable move from GCSEs to English Baccalaureates
After the proposed changes to GCSE exams, it appears that Michael Gove, Minister of Education, has been attending a few lessons himself -namely, 'How not to improve the education system: Advanced'.
Rosie Toms | 12 December 2016

After the proposed changes to GCSE exams, it appears that Michael Gove, Minister of Education, has been attending a few lessons himself -namely, 'How not to improve the education system: Advanced'.


Michael Gove has openly stated that GCSE exams have been'dumbed down' in recent years; fifteen and sixteen year olds are apparently not being challenged enough during the two year examination period. All this from the mouth of Mr Gove, the man who has never taken a GCSE in his life, never attempted to consult teachers or students on this issue, and recently suggested a return to good old-fashioned O levels.


O levels? You know, those exams that were introduced in They don't ring a bell? That's because they didn't work. There is a reason why they were abolished 25 years ago, and a reason why they shouldn't be re-introduced. 


Luckily for all current year sevens, there was a huge wave of 'anti-Govism' once this was suggested. Unluckily, however, for all current year sevens, the new system of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is suspiciously similar to that of O levels and will be introduced in 2015 if the Conservative party is re-elected.  So what does an EBacc qualification entail? Students will be expected to retain two years of information and write it all down in one very long exam per subject at the end of year eleven, i.e. no modules, no coursework, no retakes.  So, if you don't do well in the exam due to illness or nerves, better luck next time... that next time beingone whole year later when the next lot of unfortunate EBacc-ers will be sitting their exams.


This new system does not only turn students into - as one teacher put it - 'barking memory pens', but also completely removes them fromthe style of education they will receive in the future. Are you familiar with the structure of A levels? Oh yes, they're modular. And universities, how do they assess you? Some exams, yes, but what's that other bit? Yes, I remember, coursework. So in order to prepare these clearly 'dumbed down' teenagers for the widerworld, we should put them through an examination process that bears little resemblance to that of A levels or even degrees.


I am more than happy to accept that there is a problem with the way that students are examined at GCSE: controlled assessments are certainly not an accurate portrayal of what students know and understand, but rather an assessment of memory. I took GCSE French and, like many of you, experienced controlled assessments. We had hours of lesson time to write an essay in French - some rubbish about my daily routine or what I did on my holidays. Then, after 'preparation hours' in which we would live and breathe these essays until they were branded onto our brains, we would be taken into exam conditions and told to write down the essay we had just memorised. I got an A in French. I don't know any French. The exam did not test how well I knew the language, but rather how well I could memorise an essay. I am all for reforms to the way students are assessed at GCSE - controlled assessments are not the way forward, but I think coursework had it right before being shunned by politicians. And if coursework is good enough for the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, it should be good enough for GCSE.


It is easy to forget that the preparation for these exams start when a student is just fifteen. Not enough emphasis is being put on what psychological implications these exams can have on students, and what pressure and strain can do to a person not even old enough to vote (therefore not old enough to have their opinion taken into consideration by the government). Were the students actually taking these exams ever asked their opinion? I think not.


Want evidence that these exams aren't a walk in the park? In 2011, with exam season in full swing, students seemed to be suffering from a whole host of different symptoms as a result of exam stress, with lack of sleep/ insomnia cited as the most common (61%), followed by headaches or migraines(51%) and over eating (47%). Almost a fifth (19%) of students were reported tobe suffering from anxiety attacks. But hey, that's just their mental health, no big deal.


But the real question is why are these education reforms seen to be necessary? 'Grade inflation' is the excuse presented - basically claiming that because grades are going up, exams are getting progressively easier. Let's ignore for a moment that teaching is improving, that the use of IT in lessons is becoming more widely recognised as a great way of learning,and most importantly let's excuse the fact that, year after year, students are actually getting smarter. Give credit to the teachers or students? Heavens no! Much like GCSEs - that would be 'too easy'.

James Routledge 2016