This August, as Year 11 students across Bristol endured the final days of anxiety, waiting to learn the outcome of their GCSE results, their efforts were mocked by a former Chief Inspector of Schools.
Mike Tomlinson (CHMI 2000-2002) told a national newspaper that GCSEs are a “waste of time” and need to be done away with in a bid to save teachers time and schools money. He went on to suggest that exams for 16-year-olds should change to incorporate tests on four core subjects only, rather than the 10-12 choices they can currently take.
Tomlinson's comments were poorly timed, his criticism being aired at the very moment when students across the UK were experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of receiving their exam results.
GCSE results are the culmination of years of endeavour and results day is stressful enough without simultaneous attacks on the worth of the exam process. Children have worked hard, responding to the exhortation of schools and their families, they should not be told their efforts are pointless as they open their results envelope.
Now however, with the school year underway, is a fitting time to discuss the complex issues associated with a national exam system for 16 year olds. Tomlinson may have appalling timing but he is not alone in his anxiety that the current exam system does not best meet children's (or the country's) needs.
The country wide focus on exam results these days is bordering on an unhealthy obsession while it is easy to forget the reason national exams at 16 were introduced. Not that many years ago, the majority of children left school at age 16, there was therefore a need for some form of final assessment, a formal evaluation of a child's attainment as they finished their schooling. Yet today, we expect everyone to stay in full-time education to age 18 at least, so the natural point for them to focus on final exams is at the end of these final two years.
Young people today are put under far too much duress at a point in their lives when they should be enjoying the process of learning. Exams and tests are valuable tools in the education process but they should not be confused for education itself. The current GCSE system detracts from the education of children.
School's should assess children's progress at 16 but we do not need the cost and distraction of a national exams system at this stage. The days of GCSE are numbered, educators across the country recognise this, but we have yet to find a Secretary of State for Education with enough confidence and vision to make the inevitable a reality.
For the time being, our school's must continue to prepare students for public exams at 16. It is our job as educators to ensure that young people have the very best opportunities to excel in their chosen subjects. This summer saw impressive results from so many Bristol school's, while the current system is in place we need to celebrate and build on these great achievements.
At the same time, we need to encourage a timely and rational debate about the future of GCSE's, that time is not at the very moment that the results are published.
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School