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How could studying fewer GCSEs benefit young people?

by Graham Sykes,

Posted on the 25/01/2019

Could two less GCSE’s improve the life opportunities of young people? I think it could.

Currently, around 700,000 young people in Year 9 (13-14 year olds) are selecting their ‘options’ – the subjects they will study at GCSE. For most, this will result in taking around 8 subjects and their timetable will be rammed accordingly. But where is the time for developing non-academic skills – i.e those skills that people actually need in life like managing money, applying for jobs, keeping healthy, engaging in democracy? I think I might have a solution.

For those of us of a certain age, GCSEs (or o’levels, GCEs, 16+ etc) used to start in September and make up the curriculum for your final two years at high school. However, with the pressures of school academic league tables, performance monitoring and the general education free market, schools now start earlier in order to maximise the amount of timetabled time that can be allocated to exams. As a result, most will still have chocolate left from Easter when GSCEs start in earnest at the end of April.

Anyone who has ever spoken to a young person, let alone someone who has run hundreds of focus groups, knows that few have a clue what career they want to pursue. Most are simply ‘encouraged’ to get as many academic qualifications as they can. Alternative qualifications are increasingly being offered that rely on coursework and practical learning rather than a final exam, yet academic students are dissuaded from taking these subjects as their perception is not as highly valued as a GCSE.

And this is where the education system seems to be all wrong. The school timetabled day is packed with on average 5 lessons/day – 25 lessons/week. Which for a student studying eight GCSE’s, averages just over 3 lessons/week per subject. The stigma of “how many GCSE’s did you get?” has been around since I was at school (and probably before). However, the irony is that once you have made that step at 16 (whether that is to sixth-form college or into employment), GCSEs (and the number you have) significantly decreases in importance. People change and universities and employers are much more interested in current achievements rather than what you did two years ago.

Therefore, it could be said that six is enough and the additional free time could be used to work on personal development skills, learn essential life lessons, and embed a doctrine of the importance of healthy living, regular exercise and maintaining your mental wellbeing. Working on the above calculation – removing 2 GCSE’s from the timetable would free up over a day for young people to learn the actual employability and life skills they need for a successful life.

Will it happen? I doubt it. An educated, healthy generation, equipped with the skills to maximise their potential would cause havoc - their increased social mobility alone, would challenge local areas to shape services to meet their needs. Nah, much better to stick with the status quo – as that’s clearly working so well!

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