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Q is for Qualifications

December 13, 2011
Aartwork – Brad Tuttle

dev·il’s advocate (dᵉv’ᵊlz) n. One who argues against a cause or position, not as a committed opponent but simply for the sake of argument or to determine the validity of the cause or position.

devilsaardvark   (a:d’va:k’) n. As devil’s advocate, only with a much larger nose.

The recent brouhaha surrounding the WJEC exam board tossed up some interesting points. Let’s see if we can’t smack a few into touch.

To precis, two (and they have my sympathy) examiners from the WJEC were, and currently remain, suspended for allegedly divulging information to teachers regarding future examinations and their content. So rather than give generic topics to study, teachers were, allegedly, given specific questions, ultimately making a mockery of the examination process. Undercover reporters from a well-known, broadsheet newspaper apparently infiltrated a meeting hosted by the WJEC. Whether or not they would have uncovered similar practices at AQA, Edexcel or OCR, the three other main examining bodies, can only be a matter of debate. But really, why would schools pay £120 a pop to attend these seminars if they weren’t going to get an advantage of some description?

Let us, then, look at some of the matters arising. Firstly, we should all be familiar with the concept of the ‘national curriculum’. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I thought the point of a national curriculum was uniformity. So why then do we have four examining boards? Schools can pick and choose which exam board’s syllabus they study. Who in their right mind is going to pick one that the pupils will find particularly challenging, when it is they themselves who are going to be judged solely on those exam results?

Those from outside the teaching profession might be shocked to learn that, in some cases, teachers complete the GCSE coursework for their students themselves. I was well aware of this practice, to the point where I was mildly surprised to hear a radio presenter ask a listener during a recent phone-in show, “Why on earth would a teacher complete a pupil’s coursework?” Maybe she had taken a leaf out of the devilsaardvark manual of false naïveté, but yes, on the face of it the notion is preposterous. I mean, we have a well-formed opinion of teachers being lazy, striking bastards who only go into the profession for the pension and holidays. Why do the kids’ work for them? Surely that’s what they’re there to do?

The answer is Ofsted. Since the introduction of league tables, our schools are measured by the GSCE grades they attain. There is no pressure whatsoever on pupils to succeed, or even bother to learn apart from what is placed on them by their own parents. The ones who are judged are the teachers. Example: if a teacher has a particularly ‘good’ year and an entire cohort achieves A*-C grades then, when a pupil eventually posts a D grade in a subsequent year, the teacher will be the one who is deemed to be failing. That ‘D’ grade is seen, I suppose, as a kind of educational recession. And to further the economic analogy, there is a year-on-year qualification inflation.

In 1985, according to a radio news item, the pass mark for ‘O’ level maths was 45%. By 2001 it had fallen to 19%. Each year there is an increase in the numbers going to university. What we have to ask ourselves is are we getting smarter or has it become easier to get in? Or are there just more places because tertiary-sector education is as much about business and revenue as any other facet of modern life? Successive governments – maybe consecutive governments would be a better use of language because ‘success’ can’t really be associated with governments of any colour when it comes to education in the last 20 or so years – have claimed that the numbers of GCSE and ‘A’ level passes alongside increases in the numbers attending university account for improvements in the education system. Which is what’s known in the trade as bollocks!

At the top end, there is more competition for graduates in the job market and I think we can take it as read that we know how much debt students incur at uni. Then, anyone educated to ‘A’ level standard is going to find themselves competing with graduates and so on. At the bottom end, there is a well documented skills shortage in some of the traditional trades. Again, I don’t need to hammer on about how difficult it is to get hold of a plumber these days. Neither do I need to point out that many semi-skilled and unskilled jobs are now being taken up by non-nationals, not that I have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with the racist tension it creates in our communities; tension that most often stems from those that relied on someone else to do their coursework at school and now rely on state benefits.

Mull this one over. We are failing our children because we are not letting them fail.

Look at it this way. If you have everything done for you at school, how are you going to cope in the big, bad world by yourself? What will the upshot be when you backchat your boss?

We have league tables for schools, but schools are discouraged from competitive sport. How in the name of Satan’s jockstrap did that happen? Whichever numpty it was that suggested we should have non-competitive sports days should be blindfolded and made to stand in the middle of the Olympic Stadium during the javelin, discus and hammer competitions next year. By all means, praise and nurture your children and make them feel special, safe and secure, but at least be honest enough with them to let them know that if they really want to succeed, they’re going to need to put in a little effort. There are no bonuses for ‘trying’ in the commercial world of sales. OK, if you’re the head of a bank and cause a global catastrophe, you can award yourself a massive payout, but that is the exception that proves the rule. Otherwise, you have to keep looking over your shoulder because you know it might be your job on the line next.

One thing I would like to see from our education system is more vocational training. If someone wants to be a mechanic, give them a syllabus that will allow them to leave school in a position to enter the job market. Rather than making them sit in a classroom to learn about how oxbow lakes are formed, where they’re only going to end up annoying everyone else, including themselves, give them a focus, achievable targets and real goals. Let those innovating companies that are going to rely on a talented, inspired and motivated workforce inspire and motivate through involvement. Wouldn’t we much rather see Ofsted helping to move the education system forward than increasing pressure on schools and teachers? Unfortunately Ofsted doesn’t work. Standards in education are not improving and seasoned, professional teachers are leaving  in their droves. Our children are barely literate, struggle with their multiplication tables and leave school without a sense of self-discipline into a world that will, all-too-happily, kick them in the nadgers.

@devilsaardvark

Comments welcomed. Not guaranteed to be treated fairly, but welcomed nevertheless.

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