It’s surely only a matter of time before a senior politician at last joins the final dot in education policy and realises that our collective obsession with GCSE results is misplaced, and that in a world in which compulsory training or education till 18 is established, we should be obsessing on A Level results instead.
The measures introduced by Gove (Progress 8, the English Bacc, all that nonsense) focus on GCSEs. Every September, teachers return to school to learn the big news about how this year’s GCSE results stack up, locally and nationally. Sure, A Level results are mentioned, but 90% of the stress and pressure in schools is still focused on the latest Year 11 cohort and their outcomes.
And yet, we only require them to have five good passes at GCSE to qualify for 6th form. Also, they can often qualify to take an A Level in a subject with a grade 4 or 5. Sure, the government is still bashing schools over the head with GCSE statistics, but the reality of the world is that a student will be able to start an apprenticeship with 4s in English and Maths and not much more; or a college course with similar results. As far as I can see, nobody out there in real life is demanding eleven or twelve good GCSE passes, or even eight or nine.
Apart from everything else he wrought, the absolute worst achievement of Gove was the introduction of the new grades 1-9 at GCSE, with students achieving an 8 now made to feel like failures because it’s not a 9. And yet: 7, 8, 9: doesn’t matter. Any of those is going to get you to the next step. I’ll go further: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9: all the same, as far as qualifying for most of the next steps.
Are universities looking at GCSE results? Possibly, when deciding on what offers to make; but the other new reality is that many universities appear to be filling their courses on a first-come first-served basis. Gotta get those £9,250 fees, gotta pay for those new buildings. Anyway, there are a lot of universities, and just because a few of them self-appoint as élite institutions (step forward, so-called Russell Group) doesn’t mean they’re the best places to go for most people. I love pointing out that Jony Ive went to Newcastle Poly. Nobody really knows what is going to be the making of them. Universities are like William Goldman’s Hollywood in that respect: nobody knows.
As a teacher, I’m the equivalent of a priest who doesn’t really believe in supernatural beings or miracles. (In this metaphor, the Russell Group are supernatural beings.) I absolutely want to teach students about life, and empathy, and art and beauty, to impart to them some of the things I’ve found it useful or interesting or simply joyful to know. But I also want them to stop worrying about numbers. Because nobody knows. And I’m not here to help someone along the way to becoming the next Theresa May or Boris Johnson or – supernatural beings forbid – Michael Gove.
Returning to my initial point, then, it can surely be just around the corner, that moment when an Education Secretary realises that the stick they ought to be beating schools with is the A Level stick. More to the point, when are parents going to start looking up A Level results when deciding where to point their sharp elbows? The Guardian is on the case.