The GCSE Exam Results Scandal
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The GCSE Exam Results Scandal

Tens of thousands of young people will get worse results in their exams this summer due to factors beyond their control.

The reasons for the award of GCSEs or A Levels (or other qualifications) are not simply down to those factors that are commonly cited - for example intelligence and hard work. Here is some uncomfortable research evidence for those who hold such simplistic views.

The Department for Education’s own research shows that at least 10,000 summer born (May to August) children will have gained worse results at GCSE this year than autumn born (September to December) children just because of their birth date. Nothing else. The research shows that this gap appears as soon as children start at school and carries on right into higher education. 18.8% of August born young people enter university at 18 compared with 21.3% for September born young people.

So if you have a summer born child and they have done less well than you might like – there could be a reason. The figures also show that summer born children are more likely to be labelled as special needs and more likely to have been identified as having a range of symptoms such as learning difficulties and speech, language and communication needs. Indeed at the end of Key Stage 1 in primary school August born children are nearly 90% more likely to identified as SEN (Special Educational Needs) than September born children.

These figures match other evidence on how young people are judged. For instance while consulting with the Football Association I was able to access figures for the young people on the books of professional football clubs. 13% of those under 16 who are signed up for clubs are born in September whereas only 3% are born in July and similarly 3% in August. Age-related judgements are clearly faulty and act across a whole range of situations.

We then need to add into the equation some better known evidence, namely on gender, social class and poverty. For instance the Government’s research on primary schools states that August born boys who were eligible for free school meals (a measure of poverty) were less than half as likely to achieve the expected level in writing (46%) at Key Stage 1 as September born girls who were not eligible for free school meals (94%). Disadvantage in this area is cumulative. If you are a poor, August born male you don’t have much chance against a rich, September born female.

As regards social class on its own, in-depth social anthropological research such as that by Gillian Evans has shown how the school classroom is inherently more difficult for working class children than middle class children. She has shown how the working class family environment is markedly different from that of the classroom whereas middle class families equip their children better for the kind of context that they find in school. As she puts it working class children have to learn about a whole new mode of operating when they enter the classroom – and one that is usually alien to their family environment.

All this evidence points to the fact that current school arrangements and structures are inherently discriminatory. There is no way to make the classroom, the rigid subject-based curriculum and imposed timetables solve problems of inequality. The structures and processes of schooling are inherently faulty. They even encourage parents and teachers to make erroneous judgements. For instance both parents and teachers of summer born children are more likely to underestimate the abilities of such children, according to the Government’s research.

All this research does, of course, deal in averages and tendencies rather than commenting on specific individuals. It also leaves out evidence from outside school. For instance we run a programme for 9-16 year olds who are out of school. Some have never been to school but most have tried it and it has not worked for them. A majority of our students are summer born, interestingly. Our students are wonderful, talented young people. There is nothing wrong with them: what is wrong is a schooling system that has failed them.

Note that my criticism is of the system. Many teachers know what is wrong but often feel helpless to do anything about it. One primary school where we have had contact has tried to be more child-centred in a difficult inner-city area – and been failed by Ofsted and put in special measures despite being praised by parents and students. It has now had to revert to a more mechanistic way of working, which the head knows is less valuable for the children.

What we do is what the Government’s research actually suggests, namely to personalise learning. We have no classrooms, no imposed lessons, no uniforms, students write their own timetables and learn at a pace that suits them. 100% of our 16 year-olds go on to college, mostly without 5 GCSE passes.

Our summer born students tend to take less subjects and do other GCSEs or other qualifications at college. And why not? What is the educational rationale for forcing young people to take exams when they are significantly younger than others and may not be ready?  An August born young person is possibly two months off being 16 when they take GCSEs in Year 11 whereas a September born student is likely to be 16 years and 9 months old. This is a significant difference, as the Government’s figures prove.

Our rationale for a personalistic approach is not just predicated on the discrimination experienced by summer born children. There are other young people for whom existing schooling does not work. We are also aware that colleges, employers and universities have concerns about how poorly current schooling arrangements educate young people for their lives after school. Our students are self-aware, confident people who have a mature attitude to learning as they have learned to manage their own learning - and they have proved that they are well equipped for their future lives in education and at work.

Our Self Managed Learning College is only one option open to parents. Here are some more. Firstly if you are planning to have a child try to make certain they are born in the months September to December. Some middle-class mothers have told me that this is what they have done and, given that schools, local authorities and the Government are not going to do anything about the birth discrimination scandal, it’s clearly a good strategy.

If you can’t arrange birth at the right time then there are other options. One is to take a more pragmatic approach to qualifications. For instance if as a parent you would like your offspring to go to university it is not necessary to have GCSEs or A Levels to do this. The Open University gets good student satisfaction ratings because you can go at any age after 18, without qualifications and you can study at your own pace. Also access courses for mature students provide opportunity to go to university via a different route.

If you do want your child to avoid poor GCSE grades you can always take them off the school roll just before exams and then let them take GCSEs at a later date either via a college or as a private candidate. Or you could let your child take the exams that they feel confident at doing well in and just keep them out of school for other exams. A caring school ought to support such actions since this is a person’s career that could be at stake.

In our own College we have found that the Arts Council sponsored Arts Awards fit student needs better than GCSEs. Students create a portfolio of work that they manage and they can start and finish at times to suit them. And the Gold Arts Award now gets UCAS points for university entrance.

Another option is for charities (as we are) or parent groups to do what we have done – set up an alternative to school. The law does not require children to go to school. It says that education should be at school or ‘otherwise’. We are ‘otherwise’, as is home education. The law does not say that school is preferable – it gives equal weight to both modes.

Professor Ian Cunningham

Self Managed Learning College, 2001