Michael Gove, a man whose popularity with parents and teachers hangs somewhere between thalidomide and pederasty, has anounced a shake-up of the exams taken by school leavers.
Whilst still called GCSEs, much of the exam process will be overhauled, with letter-grades replaced with a numerical score system and less overall emphasis on coursework.
The responses have been predictable enough – some have said the new system is elitist, which seems likely given our current Tory-led, Eton-saturated government. Others have trotted out familiar sentiments – embittered adults have complained that exams are too easy anyway, teachers have said it will ruin everything for everyone, and students themselves have been really excited about the new Playstation.
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Nobody outside of this particular storm of controversy – or the teacup that houses it – seems willing or able to admit something most adults already know: GCSEs don’t really matter.
In the modern system, GCSEs are only important as a bridge to higher education. Once that bridge is crossed, they mean nothing to anyone.
At university, students will first encounter real-world work either in the form of a menial job or a full blown career, neither of which will be influenced by secondary school exams.
If applying for a proper career, degrees and other qualifications will have long since supplanted school exam results, rendering them null and void, and if applying for a stop-gap job, employers simply won’t care. If you’re hiring a student for a part-time waitress job, the question “Can you work Fridays?” is far more prescient than “Were you any good at R.E.?”
Past the age of 18, for most people GCSE results are like someone’s star sign or exact weight; an interesting tidbit of trivia, but of no real importance.
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The only people who have to worry about GCSEs, then, are people who leave school at sixteen, and unfortunately, these people are fucked for way more reasons than just Michael Gove.
This is not because they’re doomed by a perceived lack of education – with the number of courses and apprenticeships and work schemes available, school leavers aren’t left out in the cold in the way that previous generations might have been.
Also, education isn’t for everyone – if someone wants to be a panel beater for a living, or work in a newsagent, or any one of a million other jobs that don’t require a degree, then good luck to them. It certainly won’t matter whether they were any good at geography, or if they understood the underlying themes of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
The problem with only having GCSEs is that for all the arguments about subject choices and coursework, nobody seems willing to address the fact that a secondary-school education is effectively useless in the face of modern living.
For years, now, secondary schools have taught people pointless trivia at the expense of useable skills. Kids are taught how the water cycle works, but not how a bank account does. They are taught the wives of Henry VIII, but not how to change a car tyre. They are taught about prohibition in America, which deals with how adults couldn’t buy a drink in the past, but not at what age their own babies should be given solid food in the future.
The truth is that beyond a certain basic level of literacy and numeracy – a base level that should ideally be reached fairly early in life – schools are mostly just teaching kids things that they will never use again, and then stressing them out by giving them gruelling examinations on those subjects.
Michael Gove’s new syllabi and examination proposals may be elitist, and they may be irrelevant, but the problem that needs addressing is that we seem to constantly replace one set of irrelevancies with another.
No matter what age a person leaves formal education, be it sixteen or sixty, there are some skills and pieces of knowledge with which they should be equipped in order to deal with living an independent life in the real world. At present, and apparently for the foreseeable future, these skills aren’t being taught.
And neither Gove nor his critics are doing anything about it.
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