Robert Halfon is a British politician. He chairs the Education Select Committee, a committee made-up of members of parliament whose duty is to hold British education ministers to account. Halfon has been quoted as suggesting, “Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing.”
This would be a bad move.
GCSEs are the exams that sixteen-year-olds take in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no equivalent exam in Australia and when I first moved here, I was struck by the difference this made. Whatever their flaws, GCSEs act as a focal point to sharpen the curriculum in in subjects other than maths and English. Without them, notions of cross-curricular fluffiness can take hold. Moreover, there is nothing compelling teachers and students to develop habits of homework and revision. In fact, the reverse motivation can be in place, with teachers seeking to simply keep the kids and parents happy. There is then a sudden lurch into exam subjects at age 17, where students are all-of-a-sudden expected to be able to be disciplined and self-regulated.
GCSEs provide a training ground and a pretty good one.
Halfon also suggests, as many have done before him, that we should focus on assessing progress.
This is not a bad idea where it is possible. Most notions of progress involve students repeatedly doing the same thing and seeing if they improve at it. It makes a lot of sense if you want to improve running an 800 metre race, but education is not as contained as this. It is more complex.
Gaining new knowledge is a form of progress – how do we measure that? GCSEs are pretty good.
And as I pointed out in today’s Australian, “Imagine I write an essay on Of Mice and Men and then an essay on Ulysses. How can we compare them? Of Mice and Men is a simple novel to grasp and Ulysses is famously dense.”
The answer is that systems that are distorted around measuring progress, do not ask students to write about Ulysses, the ask them to write about which animal makes the best pet or what they did at the weekend. They do this because these systems picture writing as a skill, divorced from conceptual knowledge, as if it were a single thing like running 800 metres.
And that impoverishes the curriculum.
Don’t listen to Robert Halfon. Keep your GCSEs.