“I’m not going to revise for French. I don’t need it for college.”
For teachers of non-core subjects, there are few phrases more worrying than ones like this and, infuriatingly, there are often no satisfactory replies. Usually we gape, stutter and babble, at last arriving at arguments it is far too late for; ‘exams aren’t everything’, ‘you never know what you might need in the future’, or ‘jobs look at all your GCSE results’.
All these arguments ring hollow. Nearing the end of Year 11 with less and less time available for revision, the problem is pupils choosing to focus on some subjects over others are actually behaving quite rationally.
As we all now know well, Progress 8, our dominant measure of school effectiveness, draws on eight subjects. Few colleges or sixth forms care about this, especially those selecting pupils for non-academic qualifications. Instead their offers typically ask for Maths and English at grade 4 or above (which can be resat at the college), plus a varying number of other qualifications relevant to the specific post-16 course the pupil wants a place on.
The problem is our accountability measures often pit the interests of individual pupils against those of their teachers and schools because if a pupil chooses to spread their study time evenly they may drop grades in the subjects they personally need for post 16 courses. Those schools serving pupils in areas in which academic success is rarer are disproportionally affected because there is less slack than in areas in which children perform well.
Right now, what is of benefit to the school may actually be detrimental to its individual children.
This mismatch in priorities may well be a reason, in the past, some schools have chosen to gameplay with low value qualifications that are easy and can be taught quickly. It is far easier to get pupils who don’t care about RE or Resistant Materials to spend three days on an intensive European Computer Driving License course than is to get them to work hard at courses they don’t like and that they will never think about again once they finish their exams.
Of course, the most significant issue here is our competitive and consequentialist examination system, which implies the point of the subjects we teach is found only in grades. I’ve written about this here. Fixing this will require systemic and attitudinal change, and will be very hard.
Far easier, in the meantime, would be to change the way in which pupils are held accountable for their exam results to bring them in line with the measures we use to assess school effectiveness.
A simple way to do this would be introducing an American-style Grade Point Average (GPA), taken across eight subjects, which post 16 providers could use alongside grades required for specific courses. For a course such as ‘A’ Level history, an offer might say ‘Grade 7 or above in history, at least a 5 in English and an overall GPA of 6.7’. For a course such as Uniformed Services, a college may make an offer of “Grades 4 and above in English and Maths with a GPA of 3.8”.
A GPA system would also provide parents with a very simple, easy way to see how well pupils at a school perform over the wider curriculum and would also allow school leaders and inspectorates a simple measure of how well a school is performing over time. Such a measure would also be more consistent with Ofsted’s recent and laudable focus on curriculum, because an average GPA would draw on performance in all subjects.
This would not mean all pupils would stop prioritising completely, but it would mean there would be a cost to them of not bothering with a subject at all – a 0 in geography would have meaningful impact on their average and make giving up much higher stakes than it is now.
Such a system might well mean grades in core subjects falling, but if we are genuine in our commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum, then this may well be a price worth paying.