The market begins to speak
GCSEs have taken some flak recently. Critics believe that they are subject to Grade inflation, encourage learning by rote, and teaching to the test ,discourage creative and lateral thinking , fail to challenge the ablest pupils and are plain boring (supported it seems by recent research from Edge).In addition GCSE coursework is thought to favour girls, and is open to abuse either through parental assistance, varying degrees of teacher support and is vulnerable to plagiarism.(through internet use) .The more disadvantaged pupils are also thought to be at a double disadvantage in that they will often not have access to the internet at home or indeed meaningful parental support. The charge sheet is long and there is growing evidence that the best schools are beginning seriously to look at alternatives, and these do not include the new Diploma. The IGCSE which is more like the old O level and has no coursework has seen a 25% increase in demand over the last year , on the back of a 15% rise the previous year, which has been widely interpreted as a vote on no confidence in the GCSE format.
In GCSEs subjects are discrete collections of facts grouped by academic disciplines. However there is a growing feeling among teachers that pupils need to explore the connections between subjects. Interdisciplinary, joined up learning they believe really matters. With GCSEs there does seem to be an assumption that there is a finite body of knowledge and a right answer (known by the teacher, to be used in the exam).Examiners have strict guidelines to follow which some feel punishes the brightest who do not deliver formulaic answers. But knowledge is an “exploding” ever expanding concept so the ability to be critical, to think outside artificial boundaries and to be reflective, is essential for life-long learning and individual development .
The teachers role in GCSEs is to get pupils to jump through the hoops, (and teachers are getting better at this it seems) . In short, to instruct pupils by transmitting knowledge, and ensuring that it is presented in a set way for the examiner. But shouldn’t the teachers role be as much about helping the pupil to know how to learn ,to inquire in depth, to analyse and to make important linkages to other subjects and disciplines. This is not an argument against the acquisition of knowledge and the need for academic rigour. Of course pupils need a bedrock of knowledge. But the world is after all a joined up place. Issues are not placed in silos. Students need knowledge but also need to be aware of how they learn so that over time they become less dependent on the teacher, and so better equipped to deal with the demands of life and importantly the demands of higher education, where admissions tutors complain that students lack the ability to think for themselves.
It is not of course just the IGCSE which is making inroads. Although early days the Middle Years Programme of the IB is being looked at by around twenty schools now, and both Oxbridge and Cambridge seem to rather like the look of it. One of its strengths seems to be its claim that it teaches pupils how to learn and how to think for themselves. And of course it wont be subject to grade inflation and constant interference from politicians.