The axe is about to fall on so-called ‘soft’ subjects at GCSE, A/S and A-Level. Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, is proposing to ditch at least 43 exams. Another 73 subjects face the same fate. They will have to be made significantly more rigorous to match the demands made by what are considered to be ‘hard’ subjects, such as English and Mathematics.
Given pass rates of over 98 per cent at both GCSE and at A-Level, it is difficult to imagine how any current exam subject could be considered as anything but ‘soft’. However, it seems that some subjects are now regarded by Ofqual as sort of ‘super-soft’. Before I became a teacher I worked in the TV advertising department of one of the world’s major soap powder manufacturers. We promoted a particular fabric softner as being of “a softness you never knew before”. Apparently, this, also, now applies to exam courses in such subjects as “Leisure and Tourism”, “Media Studies”, “Film Studies”, “Contemporary Crafts”, “Hospitality and Catering”, “Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies”, and so on.
Is it true that such courses are even easier than the core subject GCSEs? It may seem difficult to believe that this could be possible. The GCSE English pass rate is currently running at 99.3 per cent with 63.6 per cent gaining the top grades (A* to C). In Mathematics there is a 97.3 per cent pass rate with 57.6 per cent gaining the top grades. At A-Level things are even more impressive, with pass rates of 99.5 per cent and 97.6 per cent for English and Mathematics, respectively. So, let’s be clear, even the ‘hard’ subjects are ‘soft’. It is for this reason that they, too, are having to be overhauled in order to restore some rigour.
Nevertheless, and as unbelievable as it may seem, the exams Ofqual wishes to axe really do appear to be ‘softer than soft’. How else can one explain recently publicised questions such as this one on last summer’s “Leisure and Tourism” GCSE? “Old Trafford is the home of Manchester United Football Club. This is an example of a major sports venue. Name one other example of a major sports venue.”
It is easy to argue that such simplisitic and low-grade questions have no place in an examination that is supposed to be academic. In fact, inclusion of such questions is entirely logical when one understands that GCSE is an all-ability exam. How does one write an English Literature exam paper, for example, to cover the youngster who is going on to study the subject at a Oxbridge and the youngster who can barely write his/her name? At the moment, for many GCSE subjects, the problem is alleviated through the use of differentiated papers but this is going to be phased out for most, if not all subjects, under the new exams that are being plannned.
A single exam for all abilities is a nonsense. In the interests of our children and of our country, we need diversity and choice. We need an academic exam, such as the ‘banned’ GCE O-Level, for academic pupils and we need top quality vocational exams for youngsters whose abilities may be more practical than academic. Subjects such as “Travel and Tourism”, “Hospitality and Catering” or “Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies” may be worth studying in the context of rigorous vocational courses. Certainly, it is time we got away from the snobbish notion, so prevalent in Britain, that ‘academic’ is superior to ‘vocational’.
The proposed toughening up of examinations and the axing of some subjects from the list of academic subjects is long overdue. How confident can we be that this reform will bridge the two to three year educational attainment gap between youngsters in this country and their peers in more successful education systems? On past form, and in the name of ‘equality of outcome’, the educational establishment will be trying hard to find a way of thwarting even this modest step in the right direction. Mr Gove, take note!