Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has gone on record stating that GCSEs are wholly pointless and should be scrapped. The MP for Harlow isn’t alone in his opinion either, with the qualification having just as many critics as it does supporters. Therefore, his contentious remark has reignited the debate; are GCSEs pointless?
Lord Kenneth Baker, who served as Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989 and introduced the GCSE, branded the recent reforms to GCSEs as ‘deeply unsettling’, citing instability and employer confusion as key points of concern. In fairness, it can’t be denied that GCSEs have suffered relentless tinkering and tailoring throughout the years and have since evolved drastically from their origins. Changes to the grading schemes, the way certain subjects have been taught, teacher working hours, budget constraints, technology; they’ve all played equal parts in making GCSEs a point of serious dispute.
Still, despite Lord Baker expressing that “the days of the GCSEs are numbered”, a final bell does not need to be tolled just yet. GCSEs are about more than grades; they also assess how school pupil’s think, and how attitudes to learning are being upheld. They also equip pupils with basic numeracy and literacy skills, and introduce teenagers to talents, aspirations and outright professions they’d never otherwise encounter. In many respects, the GCSE is a kick-starter to a productive life, offering a measure of direction and guidance to those who take them.
Of course, as with most opinions, there’re some elements of legitimacy sprinkled throughout Halfon’s and Baker’s assessments. GCSEs are far from perfect. Technology is constantly evolving, and the job market is changing shape with it. On occasion, an innovative piece of tech is created that cancels out one profession and/or automates another, leaving many workers redundant and cast aside. Put simply, the skills that are required to function in many workplaces are constantly changing, and the GCSEs don’t always cover them.
If a worker loses his or her job to a robot, then he or she can’t wave their certificates around and demand to be reinstated. The world just doesn’t work that way, and vocational subjects are becoming more relevant today. Many industries want people who will get their hands dirty and get practical. Apprenticeships, internships, hard-won work experience; these things are becoming increasingly important as test scores, at least in some circles, dissipate and take something of a backseat.
But need all this mean that the GCSE should be totally eradicated? An important point often glossed over in the debate is that GCSEs are incredibly important, but they’re not everything. Some young scholars have aced every exam thrown their way but still gone on to live unsuccessful lives, ranging from one of crime to the high-end failure of becoming a staggeringly awful politician. Conversely, many have left school without a single qualification to their name and gone on to find success. And of course, many have passed their GCSEs and gone on to fulfil their potential, just as their educators promised they would. It’s all down to the individual, not the qualification itself. The GCSE is not bulletproof body armour, nor a crippling burden. It’s a tool that can and cannot be used at the recipient’s leisure.
Instead of placing blame or gratitude squarely on the soldiers of the GCSE, we should consider a larger view. The GCSE is supposed to better one’s chances of success, not guarantee it. When people understand that they’re not a one-way ticket to a thriving livelihood, but more a starting point of a bigger journey, then their perceptions and expectations of the GCSE might become more realistic. They’re good for the people who need them and plan to use them strategically, and admittedly can be somewhat redundant for those who want to take another path.
Doing away with GCSEs entirely is simply an overreaction to a bigger problem. Life skills aren’t being learnt, and many employers are facing outright skills shortages because the unemployed just aren’t equipped to assume any of their job roles, even with an abundance of GCSEs.
Vocational learning can sit right alongside the GCSE, but the qualification should remain for the benefit of those who need to learn basic skills, as well as those who want to branch out into higher academia. Put simply, there’s room for everything, and if schools get the kinds of budgets they’ve long been asking for, a well-balanced learning environment can be created in schools everywhere.
In the end, when schools can offer a more diverse range of learning, the institutions may just find themselves satisfying most of the naysayers. Hopes shouldn’t be pinned directly on the GCSE, nor should people bet all their chips against them either. Consequently, they shouldn’t scrapped in totality.
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