No other European country tests children at 16: let’s scrap pointless GCSEs

Posted on: 2018-08-21 06:00:00

We all could and should be having a relaxed summer but instead, 16-year-olds are grimly anticipating their GCSE results this Thursday. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The UK is the only European country to have high-stakes testing at 16, with others adopting a more enlightened approach. This I discovered while leading a research project in 2016 that involved watching polyglot pupils in the European schoolsmill around their airy buildings in jeans and T-shirts.

The European schools are a network of 12 state schools in different EU countries that educate about 26,000 young people whose parents are connected with EU institutions. Their origins lie in the French and German education frameworks, although they are comprehensive in character and designed to make transfer to other EU national school systems straightforward.

These schools are not perfect – their pupils are, it could be said, too isolated from the local state school systems around them. But one thing is striking: they provide a spectacularly broad and balanced education of the kind most UK parents can only dream of. Everyone learns subjects that, in the UK, are largely the preserve of independent schools – philosophy, classics and up to four modern foreign languages.

There are no external examinations at 16. Instead, the schools have teacher-moderated assessment and relatively low-stakes internal exams, mainly as a progress check to ensure pupils are on track. And guess what, everyone survives.

Back in Blighty things are less sanguine. We’ve just launched new GCSEs with their confusing grades and greater degree of memorisation. You have to credit British teachers for making these tediously reformed examinations at all palatable to their charges. We seem to be utterly wedded to testing young people collectively and publicly at age 16, tied into national league tables.

The most bizarre aspect about the obsession with examining children exhaustively at 16 is that it is out of step with the end of their school career, now all English pupils have to stay in education until 18. Why pick the age of 16, two years before they leave, for something so important? Why not just record their progress on an internal portfolio in case they move schools?

The process is used to distil young people’s education into artificially examinable gobbets at 16 (memorised physics formulae, anyone?), only then to filter it further into a tiny clutch of subjects for their final couple of years at school. This is quite unlike the magnificent smorgasbord on offer in European schools.

GCSEs are expensive, frustrating, stressful tests that serve little purpose beyond offering practice in sitting high-stakes examinations. Year 11 pupils miss nearly a whole term of school sitting them, and then hanging out at home afterwards. GCSEs frequently reinforce a rigid educational class structure that inhibits social mobility as better-off children continue to access higher levels of support, through parents buying £50 piles of revision books or £40-an-hour tutoring.

When the day comes that GCSEs are finally killed off as pointless and expensive, perhaps teachers will be able to spend time focusing on education in depth instead. I will be cheering them on.

Source: The Guardian

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