The politicians’ touch leaves no heart and soul

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At Westminster, the focus is on public examinations, the curriculum and school structures, says Marion Gibbs, with little room for anything else and certainly no heart and soul.

There is something different about the Christmas holiday – the pressure is not the same as at other times of the year, or certainly not for me as a head. The Easter break is swiftly followed by public examinations; the summer holiday is overshadowed by the public examination results and all that they lead to; but Christmas and new year provide more than a week when the school is actually closed.

Miraculously, parents seem to cease to email as well and it is just possible to have some proper rest and uninterrupted time for reflection. With that, in my case, comes a surfeit of chocolate and similar over-indulgence, tempered with long walks in the country and lots of time with friends. 

For a brief period even the media stopped focusing on education, but then the history debate erupted after a certain appearance on a radio programme. Everyone is an expert on education and anyone’s experience of a single school is almost invariably translated into a view on education in hundreds of other, purportedly similar, schools.

Now that we are back at school we are facing a new sort of spring term. We have, for the first time in a number of years, no students taking AS or A2 examination modules this term (although very few early A2 modules have ever been taken here). It will be interesting to watch the effects of this.

Too often in the past, those taking any AS re-sit or early A2 module used this as a pretext to miss other lessons or not complete work in other subjects – sometimes through genuine pressure and examination stress, in other cases it was just an excuse. 

Interestingly, some students either gained the same marks in a re-sit module as they had done previously or they actually scored a lower mark. Re-sits were not a universal panacea. Students can, of course, still opt for re-sits in the summer term – whether these will be any more successful is an open question.

At our school we have not been in the habit of using the modular structure of GCSE for early entries but rather students sit their GCSE examinations together at the end of year 11. Soon, all schools will have to follow this pattern. The benefits and effects of this change are the subject of much debate. 

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the reasons for the abolition of the modular structure do not mostly focus on the quality of education or of teaching and learning. Rather the changes seem to have been driven by a perception that schools have been “cheating” or “gaming”, on the grounds that endless re-sits will lead to good results in the end, rather than a desire for fuller understanding or better skills and knowledge. Without modules this term, there should be more time for uninterrupted learning and teaching, a chance to explore things in greater depth, and to think about how things fit together. Will this lead to better results? Only time will tell. 

Of course, examination results are certainly not the only things that matter – they are passports or staging posts, but unfortunately at the moment many young people who have such a passport are still unable to find employment. 

We have recently been told that this is because they lack resilience and a “can-do” attitude and that these are found in abundance among young people from some other countries. 

Possibly, the obsession of the past few years on “hoop-jumping” as part of school accountability has left little time or appetite for such things. Not to mention the fact that they are not precisely measurable so cannot themselves become part of any accountability framework. 

A great education debate may have been launched by our profession, but in the halls of power the focus remains on the shape of public examinations, the content of the curriculum and school structures, with little room for anything else – bones with no flesh and certainly no heart and soul.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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