Dear Mr. Gove,
Having ended my school career on Thursday by collecting my A-level results, I am writing to express my concern that future school-goers will have a worse time and learn less than I did. Public exams are certainly imperfect but, under your proposed reforms, I fear they’re about to get worse. I would be grateful if you could take a few minutes to read a pupil’s perspective.
A-levels are hard. They require candidates to digest enormous amounts of information and, in order to score highly, to analyse and evaluate it on the fly when faced with unfamiliar exam questions. Punitive time constraints only add to the pressure – in June this year, I had to write an essay about the Angevin kings’ relationship with the English Church in 45 minutes. Books have been written on that subject. Nonetheless, I’m glad that the exams I sat were demanding – even that they were stressful – because their demands pushed me to work and to learn. My concern is that the government’s reforms make exams harder and more traumatic, but such that candidates learn less, not more.
Firstly, in proposing to abolish January modules, you have focussed too much on assessing candidates and not enough on teaching them. Resitting a module is not a second chance to cheat the system into giving you a good grade. It’s a chance to work harder and learn all the stuff you failed adequately to digest the last time. If a candidate fails a module in June and then does well the following January, that’s evidence that they have become better-educated in those seven months. If resits disappear, that learning won’t happen: pupils will just give up on material with which they did not enjoy initial success. That is neither conducive to academic progress nor is it, in my view, a healthy work ethic to inculcate.
Even more worrying is the proposal to examine the entire GCE qualification in one sitting in June of Upper Sixth, effectively abolishing the AS-level as we know it. The fully linear approach may have been viable a decade ago, before the age of the A*, but it is a terrifying prospect now. As it stands, the amount of knowledge required for success in some A2 modules is achievable only by intense cramming. It is borne out by research, as well as common sense, that we remember more when we learn in small chunks. AS and A2 are pretty big chunks, and they’re quite big enough. If I had to revise everything I learnt over the last two years in preparation for one set of exams, and I were to get through the nervous breakdown that would likely ensue, I am certain my performance would be much worse. It would, as you seek to ensure, be an accurate representation of my academic ability. That, however, is precisely the problem: my academic ability would be much worse. A lower grade on results day does not necessarily mean “higher standards” or “more rigorous qualifications”. It could, and will under these reforms, just mean less accomplished, worse-educated candidates.
It has been two years since I sat a GCSE, so I feel less well-equipped to consider your proposals for them. Nonetheless, I am particularly worried about the plan to scrap coursework. Coursework is, again, not an opportunity to cheat the system into awarding you a good grade. It is an opportunity for a different – and valuable – kind of learning. I learnt how to research, how to write and how to structure arguments by tackling a series of 2000-word essays for my GCSE English Literature coursework. These skills simply cannot be developed to the same extent through teaching for an exam. There is not time in a GCSE exam to develop arguments rigorously, let alone approach academic texts. Furthermore, this sort of thing is too difficult at that stage without the help and support that is so often characterised as spoon-feeding or, worse, cheating. And there may well be a bit of cheating – some dodgy teachers and parents here and there might give a bit too much help with coursework. That’s bad, but it might be the price we pay to learn skills we need. I can confidently say I have been an honest candidate with all my coursework submissions, and I find the attempt to ditch this important part of my education much more offensive than the false achievements of the odd dishonest candidate.
I have moaned a fair bit over the last four years about various features of GCSE and A-level exams. Having read the proposed specifications for the new GCSEs, I am delighted that you have sought to make them more rigorous, and I am excited too about more involvement from top universities in devising A-level courses. But I feel that, in the midst of a lot of lofty rhetoric about competing in some very ominous-sounding “global race”, we pupils have been rather left behind: our lives are to get harder and our lot not much better. I urge you not just to listen to the arguments I have put forward here, but to engage actively with pupils as much as teachers and academics. We do have some genuinely valuable insights. And it’s really not long until we start voting.