Exam stress – the ‘value’ of GCSE

GCSE exam hallAnother set of public examination results. This time round, after years of bleating about falling standards, media attention has focussed on the stress caused to young people – this year’s cohort being the first to  endure the new subject requirements.

Many on the Left correctly argue that education has become ‘commodified’. But anyone trying to get their head round the realities of the current examination system, might want to start with Marx himself. Right from his early writings Marx distinguished the ‘exchange value’ of a commodity from its ‘use-value’ – its intrinsic qualities or the practical benefits it provided for the individual and society.

Students now increasingly make their subject choices based on what they will ‘buy’, rather than what they are interested in or how they may help them develop personally. Their teachers also spend increasing amounts of time ‘teaching to test’ so their charges perform better than other students in other schools. In doing this they don’t do anything to benefit society as education becomes a ‘zero-sum’ good. The commodification of learning and the horror of exams however, is not just the consequence of a reactionary education agenda designed to reverse comprehensive principles however. A much broader analysis is required.

Educational qualifications now play a much more important role in the lives of young people. Unlike during the post-war years when huge numbers were able to leave school without very many and still managed to find reasonable employment opportunities, getting at least a handful of GCSEs (and generally something at Advanced Level) is considered an absolute minimum. Young people are also under no illusions about the ‘necessity’ of attending university is they want at least an ‘average’ job.

In this respect even though the school system is officially less ‘selective’ – with talk of bringing back grammar schools stirring up huge emotions, nowadays it’s much more competitive (the term ‘high stakes’ is often used) and the fear of failure haunts thousands. 

Those parents who can are able to use private education, manoeuvre their children into ‘good schools’ or pay for tutors to compensate. But  young people (apart from a small privileged minority) ultimately depend on their performance in public examinations to position themselves favourably to fulfil economic aspirations and achieve social mobility (however unlikely this may be).

It is these conditions as much as anything else, that cause much of the despair about exams – not just in this country, but in others. It’s also a major reason for current standardised assessment. Educationalists should continue to promote the superiority of coursework and more student-centred assessment, not accepting that designed to rank students on a national score. But an alternative approach where grades are even partly the result of teachers ‘professional judgement’ in thousands of different schools and colleges and where it’s impossible to ensure that everything submitted is really the candidates own work is not going to have real legitimacy where there is so much at stake.

One solution would be to downgrade the significance of GCSE. After all, few young people leave school for employment at 16 – only those entering jobs with training are legally allowed to. If Key Stage 4 assessment became less high-stakes, merely an intermediate stage or progress check, then it would be much easier to introduce reforms. It’s no accident that alternative systems of assessment have blossomed in qualifications considered to have a lower exchange value – for example, in vocational education, for those not considered ‘academic’ and in the post-war CSE, a qualification designed primarily for those in secondary modern schools.

In the longer term however, if we are to introduce more personalised form of learning and assessment, valuable in terms of its intrinsic qualities or ‘use’,  rather than its just its ‘exchange’, then we need to also have a more personalised transition for young people generally. This means employers, including those in the private sector working closely with local schools to ensure employment opportunities for those who want them and universities essentially catering for their local population, rather than being allowed to select nationally. Neither of these features on policy agendas!

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