GCSEs make teens feel stupid even when they’re NOT, says Manchester education boss

As the GCSE results gender gap widens, a Manchester education boss is claiming the exams don’t just make boys feel stupid but girls too ‘even when they’re not’. 

This claim comes after it was revealed that 41% of boys in Salford achieved five A*-C grades in GCSE level, including English and Maths, in comparison to 52% of girls.

The divide between girls’ and boys’ results in Salford is the largest anywhere in England.

Dr. David Spendlove, head of initial teacher education (ITE) and senior lecturer in education at the University of Manchester, argues that the system does disadvantage boys to an extent.

But, more crucially, he thinks the entire way of academic assessment needs to be re-examined.

He told MM: “If you want to design a system that was going to disadvantage a particular group, then it’s setting a critical examination at the age of 15 or 16 for a boy in an examination hall in the middle of the summer. They’ve got so many distractions going on.

“However, we tend to misunderstand assessment. Assessment can be used in two ways. One, it can be used to tell you where you are. But more importantly, it should be used to tell you how to get better. An examination result doesn’t tell you how to get better – it tells you where you are.

“If you went to a doctor and they told you what was wrong with you but didn’t tell you how to improve, you’d be pretty furious. In education, that’s what we do.

“I come across lots of people who were ‘unsuccessful’ at school, thought they were stupid, and then years later they come back to do a master’s degree, train to be a teacher, or even do a PhD and actually they realise that they weren’t stupid – it was just the wrong time for them in their lives.”

In the UK, two thirds of boys obtained at least five A*-C grades in the last academic year, compared to three in four girls.

In 2013/14, the gap widened to a difference of 9.1 percentage points between genders from 7.2 in 2008/09.

Councillor John Warmisham, a governor at Buile Hill High Visual Arts College, argued that the reason boys are under-performing is the issue of ‘laddishness’ – meaning that many boys feel ‘uncool’ to be learning.

However, Dr. Spendlove, also the Programme Director for Secondary PGCE at Manchester University, argues that it is more complex than that.

“One of the things that come along with this is re-defining masculinity and what that actually means,” he said.

“If you look at things like boys suicide rates, they’re huge. Boys eating disorders are another example. Typical male employment patterns have largely disappeared.

“One of the problems, however, is that it’s a very complex topic. There are thousands, in fact millions, of combinations of reasons why someone might not be successful – it’s social factors, regional facts, parental factors, subject factors – so it’s not straight forward.

“If you focus just on the gap, there’s a tendency to focus on closing that gap and that can actually have a worse effect on the girls. It’s messy.”

The Head of Education then went on to explain that the British cycling team’s philosophy – the aggregation of marginal gains – is a useful way to think about improving different areas to better the system, rather than focusing on one area to fix everything.

“It’s not just one thing – we should be thinking about achieving lots in different areas in trying to improve. Not just focussing on the gap. Improve the quality of teaching, the environment, and the resources,” said Dr. Spendlove.

“I’m not saying get rid of examinations or that they’re useless, but what happens is that they become the main focus, the event. We use them for separating other people because that’s your entry ticket for the next stage of education.

“Now all children have to stay onto education until 18, so the validity of being assessed at the age of 16 should be questioned. Do GCSEs really give them that much benefit by telling them that they’re not doing well, rather than telling them how to get better?

“Of course, there are those that are very successful through the system, but my fear is the children that are labelled when they have not achieved in a particular way.

“They could have had a bad school experience; they could be poor; they could have been the main carer in their home, we should be telling them how they can improve but instead we’re penalising them.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman told MM: “As part of our plan for education, we have extensively reformed GCSEs to ensure they are the gold standard qualification at 16.

“By requiring pupils to study more rigorous curricula, in line with the best in the world, we will ensure that more young people acquire the skills and knowledge to succeed in modern Britain.

Image courtesy of Ellie Louise, with thanks.

Related Articles