Why GCSEs do matter

Posted on: 01 Sept 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

By Barnaby Lenon, Chairman, Independent Schools Council.

This year nearly one third of GCSE/iGCSE entries from pupils at independent schools achieve an A* grade, compared to 7 per cent nationally. 61 per cent of entries from pupils at independent schools achieve an A* or A grade, compared to 21% nationally.

Even in the north of England, where entries achieving the top grades have seen the biggest fall, independent schools continue to do well, with 56% achieving the top grades of A* and A, against the 18% recorded in national figures.

And independent schools continue to do well in the traditional subjects such as maths, sciences and modern languages with many of our pupils going on to study these at A-level and then university. With languages in decline nationally many universities are now dependent on independent school students for their survival.

Exams are an essential element of a child's education because of the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory. For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it. A typical 16 year old boy can reel off 100 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE. On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 400+ – all driven by fear of the exam.

Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue. Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course. Boys do not especially want to please teachers - in my experience of teaching boys, 80% are relatively idle during the term but most make a big effort preparing for exams.

So exams are the essential building block of motivation. Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year olds, as many schools used to do with Religious Studies. It was a hapless task and almost all now insist pupils take the RS GCSE as a way of improving attitudes in lessons. Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys. Exams work because they make pupils work.

The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has recently risen to 18 so why do we need exams at all at age 16? Because in the English system we typically drop down from ten GCSE subjects to four A-levels at that age. On average one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about seven subjects at the age of 16. It is vital that, having studied these seven subjects for up to twelve years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.

Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level. We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile. We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get an A grade in Chemistry – they would be too likely to fail.

The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment. In England in recent years we have experimented with teacher assessment and it has been disastrous. Many teachers hate it because they come under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?) and because these ‘controlled assessments’ have been found to be intensely dull. Instead of getting on and teaching a course as they would wish, the academic year becomes dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.

GCSEs have been reformed and new syllabuses kick off this September. January exams and resits have been scrapped, so halving the number of exams for many students. Exam ‘modules’ are dead. Grade inflation is being turned back. New syllabuses are being produced in every school subject to make them more relevant and demanding, bringing our courses up to the level of the best in the world. More stretching questions are being introduced, there will be less teaching-to-the-test, coursework will only be allowed when it is obviously better than a written exam as a way of measuring a child’s knowledge and ability.

GCSEs are designed to be taken by the full ability range so a small number of the questions have to be easy. Journalists pluck out those easy questions and poke fun at them - but those easy questions make up 5% of the paper.

Pupils in successful countries take exams. They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory. Once in the memory new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge. Educated people know things and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’. Far too many children are taught things but know nothing. The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.

Of course exams cause anxiety and distress but those who think children should never be challenged in this way are the enemies of good education. Teenagers, and especially boys, have to be driven to succeed. Exams are that driver.

Barnaby Lenon taught boys at Eton, Sherborne, Trinity School Croydon and Harrow. First published in The Telegraph

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.