Should the pandemic limit young people’s option to five GCSEs?

  According to the Sunday Times, the government   released a set of guidelines about the 2021 GCSE examinations on 2nd July. They are recommending that, in exceptional circumstances, pupils may be allowed to take as few as five GCSEs. This is in recognition of the lost time as a result of the lockdown and school closure following the COVID-19 pandemic. Alan Smithers – a renowned professor of education at the University of Buckingham, suggested that up to 40% of pupils in state schools may be asked to take the option of a vastly limited number of GCSEs. It is alarming to contemplate the notion of one fifth of young people being forced towards a limited curriculum path, not to even begin to speak of twice that number – 40%.

Yes, a good pass in English and Maths, and perhaps the science subjects, ought to be the very basic minimum expected from young people at GCSE. However, narrowing their options and ignoring art subjects, humanities, music and perhaps design and technology is, in my view, a decision that will have a detrimental effect on these young people’s lives in the future. According to Barnaby Lenon – the chairman of the Independent Schools Council, private schools have no plans to narrow the curriculum and compel teenagers to take fewer GCSEs than the nine or ten they usually take. He argues that taking fewer GCSE will narrow the options that are available at A-level. His views are echoed by the head of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, who warned against narrowing the curriculum. I agree with her statement that “now more than ever pupils need  a comprehensive education.”

I am of the view that the suggestion of reducing the numbers of GCSEs that students in the state sector are taking is another example of dumbing down – a race to the bottom. I think we are patronising young people and saying that they are not capable of coping with the rigour and the academic demand. The reason given is that they have had less support than usual, as a result of the lockdown. The fact is, however, that the vast majority pupils did receive some sort of teaching during the four months or so of lockdown. I am of the view that there is sufficient time to prepare teenagers for GCSE so that at least 85%  to 90% of them take the same number   they would have taken  had there been no disruption due to the pandemic.

It has been widely reported that there is a distinct possibility of an economic slow-down – a severe recession as a consequence of the pandemic. Historically, we know    that there is usually more graduates applying for teaching jobs in a recession.  This means that the quality of teaching can be raised, as there will be more higher calibre candidates who can be trained as teachers. This presents an opportunity to take advantage of the potential increased supply of candidates available to teach and train them to deliver high quality education. For any degree of success to be realised in this endeavour, there has to be a distinct change in mindset and culture. A can-do attitude on the part of teachers, supported by the government, will go a long way.

During the lockdown, young people got bored of studying at home and a huge proportion of them spent a vast amount of time on their electronic devices, at the expense of their school work. It is highly likely that online learning will almost certainly be part of the mix. No one, including the government, can say with absolute confidence that schools will return to full time classroom teaching in September. Not even a government decree will be sufficient to increase confidence and persuade worried parents to send their children to school in an environment in which the deadly COVID-19 lingers around.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

It was reported that less than two-thirds of state school children actually did  the work that the teachers set for them during the lockdown. There has to be a real shift in mentality, and also more teachers must be encouraged, and compelled if need be, to embrace online teaching.  They should be supported to develop the expertise and competence to deliver a high quality of teaching that is effective in helping to raise standards. Most parents are willing to provide the support necessary for their children to succeed; however, there are situations in which the government needs to support parents and schools in providing the resources needed. I must say that, although I have serious issues with the way the government has handled education, in particular during the pandemic, I think the most important ingredient that will be a game changer is the willingness on the part of teachers and their unions to set aside politics and show a genuine willingness to adopt an open-minded approach. Very many teachers have shown a tremendous amount of courage, and they have worked really hard to support their pupils during the pandemic – but not all. We just need more of them to do so. Yes, more money is required, but more “will” is crucial.

Let’s raise expectations, be more ambitious for our teenagers…

The vast majority of GCSEs students should take at least eight GCSEs, and the EBacc can be used as a guideline in the choice of GCSEs in 2021. The EBacc requires each young person to take English, Maths, two science subjects, either Geography or History and a foreign language. This should not be the maximum, but the minimum for the vast majority. There is an argument for a small number of students to take about five or six GCSEs, but this should be limited to a small percentage. It must be recognised that, before the pandemic, every year, several thousands of young people from both private and state schools took only about five or six GCSEs. This judgement is based on teachers’ perception of what they can realistically cope with, which is largely correct, but not always. Let’s raise expectations, be more ambitious; let’s put a halt to the race to the bottom. It is not going to be easy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way and so much more can be achieved.

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