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Views on exams from academics and home-educated young people

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© Karen Luckhurst, August 2008

Karen, a journalist and home educator, has also written a Case study: Alex Dowty.

For thousands of teenagers across the country this week, much will hinge on the arrival of a small plain envelope. Will it contain the passport to dreaming spires and a lucrative career, or effectively say that more than a decade of schooling has amounted to very little and an uncertain future beckons?

Autonomous ... with qualifications Edit

It’s a defining moment of growing up for most – but not for 16-year-old Katherine La Fleur, from Swindon, because she is one of the small percentage of children in the UK who have made a conscious decision not to take mainstream exams. Katherine has been able to opt out of taking GCSEs because she is electively home educated. Both she and her brother James, 14, have been educated ‘autonomously’, which means they follow no external curriculum and their learning arises out of their interests and pursuits. For example, the children and their mother Shena have learned to speak Russian as a result of involvement with a local charity working with children from Belarus. There’s no such thing as a typical day in the Deuchars household. During the course of a week, Katherine will dip into drama, Spanish, creative writing and the Swindon Young Musicians (SYM) strings group, while James polishes his Russian, plays sax with the SYM band or works on building an oscillator which forms part of his online Electronic Wizards Apprenticeship. Then there are the Tech HEds, an award-winning Lego Robotics team in which the whole family participates and which took them to Tokyo in April this year to compete internationally.

Katherine’s decision not to take exams has the full support of her mother, Shena. ‘Young people should not have to do exams at 16 to satisfy the government's need for statistics,’ says Shena. ‘The culture in the UK seems to be that children will not learn or achieve things unless they are forced - this is not true, in my experience.’ Shena opted from the outset to home educate Katherine and James because, she says, she wanted them ‘to achieve to their own level without comparison with others or meeting the standards of the National Curriculum. I did not want them to grow up with an idea that some types of knowledge, such as academic subjects, are “better” than others, for example practical subjects.’

James isn’t planning to take GCSEs or A-levels exams either. Instead they are taking courses with the Open University. Originally, Shena imagined that the children would take exams: ‘I was not hugely convinced about GCSEs but assumed we would probably do them at some point,’ she says. But on returning from a six-month German exchange trip, aged 14, Katherine did a GCSE German paper and found she could score 100%. ‘It seemed pointless to do the GCSE, so we signed her up with the OU for a level one German course,’ said Shena. Having started with the OU, Katherine became interested in doing a languages degree and signed up for a level two English course. ‘Many university websites suggest they accept 30 points from the OU as equal to an A-level when considering admissions,’ says Katherine. ‘OU suits me because it takes less time than mainstream exams and it’s more flexible. ‘I eventually want to study law with European legal studies at Oxford.’

Access to GCSEs outside school Edit

Around 650,000 children take GCSEs every year. Mainstream exams are traditionally seen as the route into university and a good career, but increasingly people within the home-educating community are beginning to question their relevance or necessity, not least because of the difficulties that can arise in taking exams for people outside the school system. The cost of taking a GCSE independently can be more than £200 once the cost of the paper and finding an exam centre has been factored in. Finding a venue to take an exam can be very difficult. Hardly any state schools allow home educators to take exams alongside their own pupils, and some home-educating families can travel hundreds of miles to find a venue. It is also difficult to get coursework verified, because of the need to find an independent witness who is acceptable to the examining body and familiar with the candidate’s level of work. For this reason, many families opt to pay for distance-learning courses, which cost about £250 per subject.

Some universities too are finding the problems are logistical. Faced with an increasing number of students achieving high-grade A-level passes, Imperial College in London is introducing entrance exams from 2010. ‘It is increasingly difficult to select the best students using A-levels (or equivalents) alone, and the college has been looking at new ways of selecting students,’ said a spokesperson. ‘A new exam will be a further tool to assist us in selecting the best candidates.’

De-skilling children Edit

However, some academics and employers groups have more fundamental concerns with the current system and the emphasis on results. ‘The problem isn’t the exams themselves, it is the results culture and the response to it,’ says Professor Dylan Wiliam, acting director of the Institute of Education, University of London. In the drive to achieve good results, some schools and colleges have given up teaching children to think, in favour of drilling them to take an exam. That approach de-skills children who have come to believe that thinking doesn’t help in an exam. This is the tragedy of the A-level.’

A recent report by two influential academics for the Nuffield Review, a six-year consultation into 14–19 education and training in England and Wales, called for a complete overhaul of the exam system. Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours said GCSEs and A-Levels should be absorbed into a unified English Baccalaureate system that would provide a broader, more holistic curriculum for all young people. Dr Spours, of the Institute of Education, claims that a diet of up to 10 GCSEs is ‘arid’ and ‘throttles’ creative learning.

‘From Year 10, it’s heads down for pupils and cramming for GCSEs. There is little opportunity for exploration or learning for life – that’s all suspended. The whole system is arid and pedagogical and throttling creative learning. A-levels are nearly as bad. This approach doesn’t help students when they go to university and need to take an independent and analytical approach to learning. It’s no wonder universities are tearing their hair out over the lack of student capacity to organise themselves. The 14-19 curriculum and qualifications system needs a real mixture of practical and theoretical learning and more space for creativity. An English Baccalaureate would provide this.’

Alternatives to A-levels Edit

But Professor Wiliam believes that even a baccalaureate system would suffer the same fate as existing exams, arguing that while there is a culture that places more emphasis on results than the quality of teaching, any examination system will go the same way as GCSEs and A-levels. He also accuses successive governments of ‘panicking’ over reforms aimed at introducing alternative vocational schemes into schools. ‘There has been a war waging on the vocational and academic divide since the 1950s – and it continues to do so. CSEs were meant to be a practical and skill-based qualification, but because the CSE grade one was deemed equivalent to an O-level pass, CSE ended up just a watered-down version of O-level. Various governments keep coming up with vocational alternatives, but they end up panicking and shoehorning them back into the academic mould.’

It’s a view echoed by the CBI, which has already expressed concern over the new Diploma qualifications that are set to roll out from September 2008. Seventeen Diplomas will be introduced over the next five years creating parallel qualifications to mainstream exams in vocational sectors such as hospitality, IT and engineering. However, the CBI has criticised recent government proposals to extend the diplomas to humanities, languages and sciences claiming they would be an unnecessary distraction and would not have any greater value to young people or employers than the existing GCSEs or A-levels. But according to the government, the new Diploma will blend the best of academic and vocational qualifications, and become education’s ‘jewel in the crown’. It is also planning a massive expansion of the Apprenticeships scheme over the next decade, with a 20 per cent take-up target.

This should please the Federation of Small Businesses, which is calling for more recognition of vocational subjects. ‘Fifty per cent targets into higher education do not send the correct message to students – vocational learning must be given greater credibility so that students can make better informed choices for their future career path,’ said a spokesman for the FSB.

And it’s the lack of vocation in the current system that worried Shena: ‘When they were children, I was encouraging them to take a skilled vocational path, such as carpentry, plumbing, or electrical engineering. I was happy about Katherine's decision to apply to study law at university because it is vocational. I do not believe it is good for young people to go to university simply for the sake of getting any degree.’

Home-educated entrepreneur Edit

A sense of vocation is something certainly not lacking in Louis Barnett. Louis, 16, struggled through his early school years due to undiagnosed dyslexia and dyspraxia – a disorder associated with problems of perception, language and thought. In desperation, his mother, Mary, from Kinver in the West Midlands, pulled him out of school when he was 11. ‘I could see that he might have gone wrong, if I left him there,’ she says. ‘He was that frustrated.’

Like many children who leave the school system to be home educated, Louis struggled at first to adjust but, being allowed to pursue his interests, he discovered a talent for making handmade Belgian chocolates. Driving ambition and a stroke of ingenuity shot him into the big time, when his edible chocolate boxes won a contract with supermarket Waitrose. Since then he has had a personal audience with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, and addressed a 3000-strong audience in the Lyceum in London on a subject close to his heart – the use of palm oil in chocolate. From September 2007 to February 2008, his business Chokolit turned over £150,000 and is such a success that Mary and Louis’ dad, Phil, as well as his former tutor, gave up their jobs to work for it.

His business is now poised to go international with the launch of his Biting Back bar, which highlights the cause of the orang-utan in Borneo, whose habitat is being devastated by the demand for palm oil. Louis, predictably, sees a lack of qualifications as no bar to success. ‘Business is about grasping opportunity when it arises. I made a cake for my aunt’s 50th birthday, and her friends were so impressed they asked me to make cakes for them. From seeing that first £20 I realised I could be doing this every day. ‘But you do have to be prepared to work hard. When I came out of school, I started working as a volunteer with a falconer. He told me “you’re only 12, you have to prove to me you’re worth taking on”. He gave me the worst jobs and I stuck it out until I worked my way up to touring the country doing displays. That experience taught me that you have to work hard for what you want to do.’

Key to the Barnett and Deuchars families' beliefs is the idea that young people should pursue subjects and interests that they enjoy and have an aptitude for. Spours agrees: ‘If just 10 per cent of time in schools were given over to project-based learning harnessing pupils’ interests and passions, we would see an incredible difference. If you allow young people to follow their interests they take off – and that spreads confidence to other areas.’

Exams – the DCSF view Edit

However, the government defends the record of GCSEs and A-levels. ‘Ministers are confident that they are robust, rigorous and respected and equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need,’ said a spokesman at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. ‘They are a quality certificate recognising 11 years of education.’

But Shena is not convinced, arguing that many children are switched off by the emphasis in schools on testing and exams. ‘I cannot see how it helps for them to take an exam in which they know they will get a low score,’ she adds. ‘Some people develop later than others. Many people are successful after having failed at school. I don't see the point of them having wasted so much time and been written off so young.’

Last year, over 40 per cent of 16-year-olds failed to achieve ‘good’ GCSEs. It is those children, Ken Spours believes, that are failed by the current exam system: ‘Unless a pupil is likely to get five GCSE passes at grades A*–C, the die is cast. It’s very difficult for them to get back, they are considered the wrong side of the divide – all of which contributes to their own sense of failure.’

But that’s all a little too pessimistic for young entrepreneur Louis. ‘Life is about opportunity,’ he said. ‘If you don’t fit into the system, find an alternative. An academic life is not for everyone and whether you find your potential early or late, there is always potential.’

© Karen Luckhurst, August 2008

Karen, a journalist and home educator, has also written a Case study: Alex Dowty.

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