They sharpened their pencils when they were 7. They sucked on the ends of their Berol handwriting pens in the summer of their last year of primary school. Today, thousands of sixteen-year-olds in England are getting the results to their GCSEs. If you know someone who’s going to be making that trip to school to receive that envelope, I hope its contents make them (and you) smile. And that the stresses and strains of those weeks of exams are no more now than unpleasant memories.
It’s thirty years since GCSEs replaced ‘O’ levels and GCEs. This year, they have had increased content and have almost exclusively been tested through examinations at the end of the course, rather than via coursework. Michael Gove, when Secretary of State for Education, said that “By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race.”
Really? Really, Michael? I think a “broad, deep and balanced education” needs rather more than revamped exams. It needs a school system that is resourced to allow its pupils to discover their talents in the creative and performing arts. It needs one that gives parity to vocational learning, whilst stretching those who are academically gifted. It needs one that celebrates the values of voluntary service; gives children the opportunity to take part in sport and encourages them, through field trips, residential visits and expeditions, to learn to live with one another and understand what it is to be a citizen of their nation.
I’m not suggesting that academic learning isn’t important. For many, it’s essential. I benefited greatly from learning passages of Shakespeare by heart. Truly, I did. But it isn’t the be all and end all. And to pretend that it is the panacea to winning ‘the global race’ is nothing short of a Gradgrindian fallacy.
And I’m not suggesting that many schools don’t work exceptionally hard to ensure that their pupils get opportunities to broaden their experiences. I know that many teachers and headteachers encourage their pupils to take physical excercise, learn musical instruments and discover new talents. I just wish England’s policy makers understood the importance of such activities, (activities that many of us classify as non-formal education), and actually encouraged them.
Lithuania’s forward-thinking education minister has made it her aim to ensure that all pupils in government schools get a truly holistic education. In Australia, achieving your Duke of Edinburgh’s Award gains you extra points for your university application. The President of Ghana placed the importance of non-formal education at the heart of his birthday address to the nation, a few months ago.
This year, I was fortunate to be a guest at the Global Education and Skills Forum, organised by the Varney Foundation. In session after session, teacher colleagues voiced their concerns about the narrowness of the English curriculum and the challenge of inculcating what are now fashionably known as 21st Century skills: collaboration and teamwork; creativity and imagination; critical thinking; problem solving.
These aren’t ‘soft skills’ as some people have described them. These are hard, challenging and essential. And although traditional subjects can be used to develop them, they’re much better learned through co-curricular experiences.
Not all learning goes on in the classroom.
This year’s GCSE candidates reported high levels of stress, frustration and feelings of helplessness during the exam season. It’s time for education policy makers in Westminster to understand that there needs to be room and funding for the activities, in and out of school, that develop resilience, co-operation and empathy.
It’s time to value and resource non-formal education in all its guises – and to ensure that all young people get the opportunity to benefit from its outcomes. Maybe Damian Hinds could make this his big project. And leave the nation’s sixteen-year-olds with rather more than memories of a ghastly exam season and a set of certificates graded 1 – 9.