When communism fell apart in the USSR there was panic in an unusual sector of the economy: the school examinations industry. What was to become of all those questions about Marxist-Leninist theory and the history of the communist party — hitherto core components of any exam process where success was needed in order to progress, particularly to elite universities. Suddenly the core wasn’t even banished to the edge but was well beyond it. You have to feel for the cadre of trusted party members once entrusted with that task.
I thought of this as I read Edward Lucas's article in Monday's Times which called for the abandonment of the GCSE examinations; he said they are a form of child abuse fostered by the State. What would teachers do, I mused in these circumstances? What would they teach? How would they hold attention?
They'd be freed up of course to teach all those things that countless critics (including me) say are worthwhile. What a daunting thought. Oddly, though teacher unions want to banish SATS; none seem to be gunning for GCSE, counter-educational though it is.
"... In practice, these exams seem to me to be a form of child abuse.
One reason is that GCSEs are not really about the subjects themselves. They are tests of technique. You gain a good mark not because you know and love the topic, but because you have mastered the marking scheme and can regurgitate the right factoids in the correct order. Extra knowledge is firmly discouraged ... Memorisation trumps understanding. ...
Questioning the textbooks is heresy. The drive for topicality means that these authorised versions are often outdated; the physics book’s treatment of renewable energy seems to have been written a decade ago. The history books mix platitudes with lacunae. Don’t get me started on geography (dud economics laced with political correctness) or the tendentious, unstated relativism of the religious studies course. Some subjects are suited for exams at this level. Others are not. A friend’s daughter boasts GCSEs in law and psychology."
"As my ire rises at this perverse, and uniquely British, arrangement, so too does a nagging sense of recognition. I once worked in a country where the curriculum was designed to crush independent thinking. Ideological orthodoxy was paramount. Even a minor misstep could doom you to a constrained, tedious life. Education, in short, was an arm of the state, beating malleable young people into shape. But the rigid, ruthless, soul-destroying East German system was installed by Soviet occupation. We have done this to ourselves."
All of us who want to see young people learning about the world they will inherit should be calling for the death of the GCSE. Go on, I dare you.