We’ve been having a bit of discussion at school recently about how much choice we should be giving the kids in their GCSE options. It’s something that arouses quite strong feelings (mind you, put a load of teachers together discussing anything educational and you’ll find they have strong views!)
Laydeez an gennelmen – please welcome, in the red corner, defending the status quo, the proponents of the rounded education! (Applause). And in the blue corner, we have the challenger, fighting for freedom of choice and catering for the individual! (Applause).
See? They both sound convincing, don’t they? The “rounded education” idea in practice means having a large core curriculum – subjects that we (collectively) think our pupils ought to study up to GCSE. This, of course, means that there are not many spaces for options subjects, so kids may feel they are missing out on something they’d love to do, and also means that some may be required to take a subject they really feel they dislike and have little aptitude for. Hence the suggestion that more choice might be in order.
Educational fashion comes and goes on this one. When my parents were at their secondary schools, they each had the grand total of one choice in their School Certificate subjects – Mum had to choose Additional Maths or Latin, and Dad had to choose Geography or Latin. (Mum, like me, loved Maths, and Dad, like me, hated Geography, so the choices were easy).
When I was at school, in contrast, the only compulsory subjects were Maths, English Language and English Literature, and we had to choose five others. The Headmistress told us it would be a “good idea” if we chose at least one science and at least one language, but this was not enforced. I remember her saying that those who were not very scientific could consider Biology as their best option, and the non-linguists were similarly advised to go for Latin (presumably as you didn’t have to actually speak it). I ended up choosing French, German, Latin, Physics and Chemistry.
I think my own experience has probably biased me somewhat in the discussion on choice for our pupils; I might investigate how many others are similarly affected by their own experience. You see, I don’t actually feel I missed out by not doing History or Geography – not that, as an adult, I don’t find both of these subjects interesting – I very much do – but not studying them for O-level hasn’t prevented my interest (and indeed didn’t prevent me doing a Level 3 OU module which was basically history but also brought in geographical themes). Nor do I feel the lack of biology has hindered me. I picked up the bits that interested me (genetics and evolution) from broader reading anyway (come to that, don’t think they were on the O-level syllabus) and when obliged to learn some aspects that don’t in the course of my chemical studies (all those details about cells), I’ve done so without any real difficulty. Though I must admit the ones I missed out are probably easier to pick up on than many; if you are learning a language, for example, you definitely can’t miss out the foundations.
But, you may say, are kids mature enough to make these decisions at 14? I’d argue that actually, many of them are – or would be if we gave them half a chance to practice decision-making. Of course many of them may not yet know where their interests lie for sure – that’s absolutely fair – but for such pupils, there’s always the option to more or less follow our current core curriculum which will be a safe bet and keep options open. In any case, there usually is scope to rectify things – I remember one of my contemporaries picking up O-level biology in the sixth form to cater for a relatively late-onset desire to be a medic.
There is also the argument that kids ought to have certain things in their education. To some extent, we all tend to agree with that – I’ve yet to hear anyone suggesting that making Maths or English optional would be wise (though I think you could make a case for English Literature as optional). On a pragmatic basis, given we know that qualifications in these are required for further/higher education and employment, we have no choice there anyway.
Personally, there are a whole lot of things I think kids should learn and understand. I hate the level of statistical, mathematical and scientific illiteracy in our society. I find ignorance of things that I thought were “general knowledge” a bit alarming at times. People who’ve hardly read any novels, seen any plays, or visited any museums and galleries seem to me to be missing out a lot too. Come to that, the ethical compass of those who think it is genuinely OK to defraud train or bus companies, local government or the taxman, whilst seeing themselves as “decent law-abiding folk” needs some readjustment.
But I am not sure that making people do subjects for public examinations is necessarily the way to address this. Examining things tends to make kids regard them as something to be learnt for an exam, alas; this often seems to imply that the minimum of active thought and engagement, other than that focused how to get the marks, will be put into it. If you get the stroppy variety of kid (er… like me at that age), then being forced to do something if they don’t see why might actually make them far more resistant to absorbing its message.
The response you frequently get, though, is “if it’s not for an exam they won’t take it seriously”. That, of course, is a far more serious problem than the details of what examination subjects are compulsory or optional – if education is reduced to solely what is examinable, as I have said before, we are in a very bad way as a society.