The GCSE / O-level debate: Everyone’s a bloody expert

In all the kerfuffle over GCSEs and the potential return of O-levels, one question remains unanswered: why doesn’t everyone just ask me? After all, I’m the sodding expert. If ever there was a moment where I could say “hang on, I know stuff!“, this, surely, is it. And given how often I rant about stuff about which I know nothing, I really ought to take the opportunity to rant about an issue about which actually, for once, I have something to say.

In case you’re wondering, here are my actual credentials regarding the education debate:

  1. I’m a parent
  2. I read the Daily Mail
  3. I did exams, once.

That’s pretty good going, isn’t it? Oh, but there’s some other stuff: I have a job that is linked to education. I actually read exam specifications! And past papers! I even read some this week! BUT I’m not a teacher or an examiner, therefore I’m not just in the business of covering up the fact that I am, apparently, crap at my job. Hell no, I work in the private sector, so I’m totally efficient and shit. In addition to all this, my partner used to be an academic (i.e. he could have been writing exam specifications for me to read) except he’s now training to be a primary teacher (i.e. he’s gone thick and lefty and useless, and I get to see this transformation at close hand). And in case all this wasn’t enough, I am, like, dead clever. I have an MA from Oxford and a PhD from Cambridge, so Michael Gove should love me.* Especially as I went to a grammar school. I am just totally Gove-tastic, me.

I was thinking of all that this morning when I was reading an Independent blog post on how useless young people, sorry, GCSEs are. It’s written by Liam O’Brien, who got 9 A*s at GCSE in 2005, but isn’t about to get overawed by his own success: “But even as I sat the papers, I was aware that these grades were completely worthless“. Which is obviously news worth passing on to all those millions who don’t get 9 A*s. How mega-thick must they be? Even I find it hard to imagine such a level of thickness and I’m dead clever, me.

Liam is annoyed about all of the GCSE subjects being too easy, but he has a particular go at MFL:

In the most recent French reading paper, students could obtain a mark for recognising that “piscine” means swimming pool.

Well, I’ll tell you something, Liam – it does! Piscine does mean swimming pool! And actually, getting a mark for that is a real achievement if you’re 16, since first you have to overcome the urge to die laughing at the fact that the French swim in something that sounds like “piss” (what, you mean you never did that?). Well, piscines aside, Liam goes on to tell us exactly how GCSE MFL exams work:

In modern foreign language and Latin classes, we would sit O-level papers as practise [sic.] for the real thing, safe in the knowledge that nothing as difficult would ever appear on the real exam. In some cases, a C grade would translate to As and A*s. In those days, language papers required some understanding of the subject. Now, it’s a case of whether you’ve adequately prepared your strict vocabulary lists because – never fear – there will be nothing “off-road” on the exam.

This is, you might be surprised to know, complete and utter merde. In each of the GCSE specifications 60% of the marks are for speaking and writing, i.e. productive work which does not rely on simple vocab recognition (in addition to this, 20% of the remaining marks are for listening, which relies on vocab recognition in an entirely abstract context, in which you can’t see the speaker. This is hard. Especially if someone says something that sounds a bit like “piss”).

Speaking and writing are currently examined using controlled assessment. As a method this is rubbish and MFL teachers hate it. This is of course because they are teachers and therefore lazy and useless. Or actually, it might be because they’d like to do some actual teaching and controlled assessment gets in the way, involving extended preparation periods during which teachers cannot help students even if they’d like to. Some students use the preparation time to memorise work and then reproduce it. This is not a great way of encouraging fluency in communication (and it is often exposed when students face an unexpected – unexpected! – question in the speaking and can’t string a sentence together). Basically, controlled assessment isn’t working. But it’s not because it’s easy or because it’s a mere vocab test. Only someone who can’t be arsed to examine the problem up close would suggest that.

I’m not saying such a person is necessarily stupid. They might, for instance, have 9 A*s at GCSE. I’m just saying that if we want to improve achievement in a subject such as MFL, we should do so by finding assessment methods that encourage actual fluency, and not just by making the subject “harder“, whavever that means (cryogenic floatation tanks rather than swimming pools? I don’t even know if such things exist but hey, they sound a bit more hardcore than the sodding piscine).

Whatever the problems with current exams, I have serious issues with journalists and people in general trying to downplay the value of what students achieve (sorry, I’m meant to say “pupils” aren’t I? Don’t want to be bigging them up, although actually, you could interpret my use of the word “students” as a way of downplaying the achievements of university undergraduates as well). I don’t think GCSEs are perfect. However, I find it bizarre that we are talking, not about improving learning and knowledge, but simply about “hardness”. It’s dead easy to write hard stuff. You could, for instance, just get academics to set university-level exams for people at school (oh, hang on, we’re meant to be doing that). It doesn’t improve knowledge and its delivery in any significant way.

I would love young people to be passionate about languages. My own view is that this can be done through greater cultural engagement, and fewer meaningless scenarios in which you talk about the different items you store in your pencil case (and don’t get me started on what’s in “ma chambre”. You don’t want to know). I don’t hold with claims that GCSEs are “a national disgrace”; on the contrary, I worry more about the future of MFL when it’s being suggested that the main reason for learning a language is to beat our “competitor” countries on the education league tables (intercultural understanding? Donnez-moi un break). This seems to me, fundamentally, to push against valuing knowledge and creativity, precisely the things which make learning useful (both personally and perhaps, dare I say, economically).

Well, that’s what I reckon. And you should listen to this because I, like, know stuff. A bit. For once.

*A previous post on this blog does mention the fact that I failed my PhD first time around. Which might suggest I’m not a total genius. However, young people experiencing academic failure is also Gove-tastic. Hell, I tick all the boxes!


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