CEO’s blog: Do GCSEs still matter?

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Our CEO, Fiona Spellman, questions if GCSEs are still relevant. 

With GCSE results out today, now seems an important time to reflect on their continuing relevance. Do they truly equip students for life beyond school, or should we take more seriously those who claim that we’re measuring the wrong things?

There are many people who succeed in life, and particularly in work, who do not achieve well at school. Some of our most successful entrepreneurs achieved very meagre results, for example, and succeeded anyway thanks to their ingenuity, hard work and persistence. This leads many people to argue that it is these skills, and not academic subjects, that our schools should focus on.

The truth is, for the vast majority of students, great qualifications open doors. It is of course possible to succeed without them, but we shouldn’t over emphasise the exceptions simply because they are more newsworthy. For every Rags to Riches story involving poor outcomes at school, there are many, many more who never made it. That it’s possible for some particular individuals to succeed despite the odds stacked against them, should not deter our efforts to even those odds.

Another argument I often hear is that our curriculum is hopelessly out of date with the demands of employers today, and even more so with how the world of work is shaping up for the future. Why are students still learning about Shakespeare and Trigonometry when they actually need advanced coding skills? According to this school of thought, children should be taught what employers need, rather than wasting time on knowledge they’re never likely to need.

This utilitarian view of education is a particular bugbear of mine. Why does Shakespeare and Trigonometry still matter? Because these are some of the highest achievements of human endeavour, and we owe it to each generation to pass on the best knowledge of their ancestors. It matters because it is difficult. And because the ability to learn difficult things is important. Consider for a second why physics graduates are paid so well to take up jobs in the City. Is it because these firms are interested in the finer points of physical science? No, it’s because they want to hire bright people who can absorb and process complex information quickly.

We don’t know what the jobs of tomorrow will be. In fact, we never did. What we do know is that students are going to need to be great learners, and to adapt to more change than perhaps any generation before them. In my view, the most resilient to change are likely to be those with the highest quality core qualifications. So please, don’t teach our children only to code, teach them to learn. Teach them difficult concepts, and give them a chance to explore their talents. Coding could soon be done by robots anyway.

It’s interesting when people say things like ‘exams aren’t important anymore’, as in my experience, they often take the opposite attitude when it comes to their own children. Likewise, many of the same business leaders who will say that schools teach all the wrong things nevertheless make a prestigious degree (and by extension the GCSE and A level results that precede them) a condition of interview. 

For as long as we want great GCSEs for our own children and employees, let’s want them for everyone.

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