This is following on from the previous blog about GCSE and A-level exams.
In the previous post I mentioned how large numbers of students are failing the “traditional” subjects, such as English, Maths and Science. This has led to the construction of the new “English Bacc”, which tracks the number of students getting a good GCSE in English, Maths, Science, a humanity and a language. News stories have also criticised the new Applied GCSEs, and how they can be worth up to 4 “traditional” GCSES.
While I agree it is important that students take the core GCSESs of English, Maths and Science, as they are useful no matter what career they will eventually be used in, I don’t see the problem with applied and vocational GCSEs (or A-levels, for that matter). While a poorly-designed vocational syllabus could end up being very simplistic, the logic of students being able to learn the same subject in different ways is valuable.
An example of this would be Science: the Double Award form works well for students who learn “traditionally”, by reading and working through textbooks, while the Applied form works well for those who don’t, by providing experimental and physical ways to demonstrate the same concepts. If the Applied version is designed rigorously, it will provide the same amount of knowledge and demonstratable scientific skill as the more academic Double Award, and the GCSE’s would be truly equivalent. Where is the problem in that?
In my opinion, the potential problem with vocational GCSEs depends on what they are being used for. If they were designed to teach as much content as “traditional” GCSEs, just in an alternate form, and they are taken to match student’s interest and requirements, there wouldn’t be an issue. The difficulty arises when teachers push under-performing students into vocational courses simply to artificially maintain or inflate their league table rankings. To stop this happening, it is imperative that vocational courses be scrutinised to find how much content they contain compared to their matching GCSE, and that vocational courses are designed to be effective alternatives.
This links back to the English Bacc, which only tracks the traditional subjects. Personally, I think the Bacc gives a sort of “honourable mention” to students who have studied a varied curriculum. However, Michael Gove’s decision to add the English Bacc ranking to this year’s league table was unfair, as schools did not know they would be asked to change their curriculum.This had led to the majority of schools getting misleadingly low percentages of students achieving the Bacc, with many schools getting 0%.
A better idea would have been to first show what percentage of students took a correct subject combination for an English Bacc, and then which percentage of those students achieved it. Schools would then be able to change timetables and be rewarded in future years for getting more students to take a balanced curriculum, not just for inflating their results.
Similar logic applies to the vocational courses- moving the goalposts of how courses are understood and measured, without giving schools a chance to adapt to these changes, does nothing apart from creating more failed metrics.