When our students come to the end of their formal education in our subjects, we make a value judgement about their ability and achievement. In each subject, students are awarded a grade – usually via external examination, but sometimes via internal assessment. These grades are the currency that students need to buy their way into the next level of their education. Stronger grades at GCSE level put students in a position of power – they can choose from a wider range of courses and they have more control over the course they will take. In contrast, those students who achieve lower grades at GCSE level will find that their options have become restricted. They do not have the entry fee to get into the top A level qualifications and they must take vocational qualifications instead. Perhaps they cannot meet entry requirements for level 3 qualifications at all, and they must go to college to strengthen their level 2 qualifications. A year 7, theoretically, has a massive range of academic opportunities ahead of them, but a year 11 student who has received a sub-optimal set of GCSE results has had several potential pathways closed off to them – possibly forever. Sometimes, this comes as a dreadful shock. Sometimes, students who have built their hopes for the future around becoming a doctor find that they cannot gain entry to the necessary A level science courses, for example. This is a sudden and ruthless realisation.
Our students should not reach this point in their education before they realise that so much is riding on the success of their public examinations. It is an uncomfortable truth because nobody wants to heap this much pressure onto young minds. We are essentially saying “You must do well in your exams, because if you do not, your chances of having a difficult and miserable life will increase exponentially.” It doesn’t matter how many times well intentioned parents tell their children that “exam results don’t matter”, or that “the most important thing is to be happy”. This is, sadly, a naïve view. The formative years of childhood should, ideally, be happy years. However, any short-term happiness that is bought by trivialising the importance of conscientiousness at school is simply a manifestation of wilful ignorance. Our society has created a system that labels each person’s intellectual worth through exam grades. To come out on top, students need discipline, motivation and rigour. They need to work hard, and they need the adults in their lives to motivate them to do so. The examination system is a Darwinian survival of the cleverest and most conscientious. Looked at from this perspective, students need to engage with your subject whether they like it or not. Their future success and happiness depend on it.
Recently, one A level student said to me “It’s brutal. Three letters, my grades, will basically decide my future path.” She’s absolutely right. The three A levels she achieves will decide which university she can attend, and that in turn will influence the career opportunities she has access to. She must give everything she has to prove her academic ability now, so that she can continue to enjoy opportunities and choices in the future. After A levels, students are well on the road to specialising. They have traded in the boundless opportunity of multiple pathways that lay before them as a child, and they have actualised their potential within a smaller selection of subjects. Next, they will specialise in a single discipline at university or through an apprenticeship. Expertise in one area comes at the cost of hypothetical expertise in all the other areas that could have been studied – the many roads not taken. This is the brave decision that students must make. Every time they make their choices about the next set of increasingly specialised qualifications, they are at a frightening fork in the road.
I sometimes visualise each student’s academic career as a pyramid. At the bottom of this is the solid and broad foundation of KS3 subjects. Here, all students consume a diet of knowledge and skills across a range of disciplines. The next level up the pyramid is a little narrower, as it has focused in on 9 or 10 GCSE subjects. Some of these subjects are compulsory, some are choices. In some cases, the subjects at this level have been determined by the student’s achievements at the level below; therefore, their choices may have been restricted at this stage. For example, only the most able scientists are likely to take triple science at GCSE level, whilst most students take double science. The next level of the pyramid is KS5, where students typically narrow their subject choices down to 3 level 3 qualifications – A levels or equivalent vocational qualifications. They will certainly need to meet entry requirements to courses at this stage, and so, again, there is a toll to pay on entry to this level of education. Some doors will be closed to students, depending on their performance at KS4.
We need our young people to know, therefore, that they cannot afford to mentally opt out of any of their subjects. Not only is this bad for them because they are wasting their opportunity to learn something useful in the present, but they are also harming their future self. We must help our students guard against such self-destructive choices, because they do not yet have the maturity or foresight to do this for themselves. We must not give up on students, even when they seem to have given up on our subjects.
Your subject is valuable. You know it, and it is incumbent upon you to always communicate that value to your students. When they see the value of your subject, they will understand why they must commit to their studies. They will want to be successful, even though they don’t necessarily enjoy the content. You will not need to rely on gimmicks or creative teaching methods to gain your students’ attention. You will, along with your colleagues in different disciplines, build a broad base of knowledge and experience that your students will build upon as they begin to specialise their disciplines. You will give them the currency they need to progress successfully into the next stage of their education.
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