Thursday, 21 August 2014

Are GCSEs Important?

Image courtesy of JISC

"Don't worry about your GCSE results! I never use mine!"
"I can't even remember what I got for my GCSEs!"
"No-one has ever looked at my GCSE certificates!"

These are some of the things I have read today, on GCSE results day, via social networking sites.

I can see how they are easy statements to make as the older you get, the further away the GCSE results day is, the memory fades. The stress, the worry, the nervous anticipation, the hard work in the build up...

Here are a few reasons GCSEs do still matter...

GCSEs often determine sixth form destination
Many schools have a minimum requirement, as do many colleges. Apprenticeship courses and other training programs will also have certain demands. These requirements do drastically vary; some are happy with 4/5 C grades, with Bs in subjects you want to study at A-Level. GCSEs are a good indicator of performance at A-Level and is the only externally verified qualification you have to your name at the start of sixth form study. Your results also directly affect your predicted grades which may be used by sixth forms and colleges to decide on applications. The better your grades, quite simply, the more options you have.

GCSEs determine subject studied at sixth form
The majority of sixth forms only allow students to take A-Levels in subjects where they have achieved A or B grades. Requirements for other courses such as BTECs will vary, depending on the subject. Most sixth forms will require you to redo English and/or Maths if you have not got a C grade at GCSE as a condition of entry. Subjects studied at sixth form will naturally open or close doors for university study or job prospects...

GCSEs may determine which universities you can apply to
Some universities require high A-Level grades. There is an assumed connection and based on your GCSE results, some universities will not consider applications of students who got Bs and Cs at GCSE. Popular universities and competitive courses will naturally be more effected by this.

GCSEs may determine university courses
Most universities want at least Cs in GCSE English, Maths and sometimes Science. Some universities have specific requirements for other subjects, with certain grades... sometimes a B or even an A minimum or preferred. Obviously the subject choice at A-Level often determines university courses and if GCSE grades were limited, this would effect all further study.

GCSEs may determine your career
Some career related courses such as engineering and medicine expect GCSE grades in Sciences and Maths at grade A... some even now specify A*! Social work, teaching and nursing expect at least a C in English, Maths and Science - even if you have A-Levels and/or a degree. Even jobs that do not require higher education have minimum requirements and with the general increased level of expertise and education across the UK, more and more jobs have a competitive field.


"The job of exams is not to be hard, it is not to be easy...[ ] The job of exams is to test learning and produce adequate differentiation across the full range of candidates. This, amongst other things, is why we need what that charming individual called "Exams for Thick People". The job of an exam is not to let clever people show off, it is to actually assess people, and that means differentiating between D and E grade candidates just as much as it means differentiating between A and B grade candidates. Complaining that exams are getting easier is just a socially acceptable way of complaining that we're no longer restricting education to a privileged elite." Daniel Hemmens

We have never established exactly what GCSEs are for, and O-Levels before them. There is two possibilities:
  • Are GCSEs (and A-levels) intended to differentiate pupils to help sixth-form colleges and universities with selection? This would indicate the A*s in any given year are the brightest of the cohort. The ability of an A* in 2014 would not necessarily be the same as an A* in 2004.
  • Are GCSEs (and A-Levels) intended to mark a certain standard – an A grade pupil has a certain set of skills, a C grade student a smaller set? This would indicate in any given year that there would be similarity in same-graded students.
Each model would look very different and debate is difficult. Whatever the purpose, to have a universal benchmark in education is difficult. Exams could never stay static and could we ever have two people 20 years apart with a similar exam / qualification?

It cannot be argued that many students are passing more GCSEs and at higher grades. However is it over simplistic to say they are simply getting easier? 

Things to consider:
  • It was always tougher in the "good ol' days"!
  • Do you actually, with any accuracy remember how hard your GCSEs or O-Levels were? 
  • O-Levels were taken by top 25% and many failed while, GCSEs are for the majority of students
  • It is increasingly difficult in much employment to not have GCSE grade C in English and Maths
  • There is pressure of relatively high unemployment; education/qualifications can help job prospects
  • Far more students attend university
  • Education has a far greater emphasis in today's society; naturally pressure comes with that
  • Teachers (for better or worse) are able to focus teaching for the exam; League Tables/OFSTED forces this!
  • Students have greater access than ever before to online resources and websites which can reduce the effect of poor teaching/schools
There are students who have worked countless hours over the last two years to really achieve their first (of hopefully many!) qualifications. A student who has a clutch of A*-B grades will not necessarily end up with a great job, big house, fast car... but they have done something to set them on their way. Likewise, life is not over for the student who has a set of low grades... there are many ways to make your way in the world. I always tell my students they are worth far more than a set of GCSE grades; they are beautiful and wonderful in so many other ways. However to reduce or belittle anyone's achievements today seems a little mean and unnecessary. 
Congratulations to all students receiving GCSE grades today

However on the flip side... I bloody love this song:
"We busted out of class had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school"

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