Lord Baker was right the first time around

Lord Baker was right the first time around

I was recently interviewed by the Daily telegraph about a story in which Lord Kenneth Baker – a former Education Secretary – said GCSEs ought to be abolished.

As the person who introduced the exams this is quite a U-turn, something his Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was not keen on doing.

Lord Baker argues that as most students stay in education until they are 18 there is less need for testing at 16; a needless expense and waste of time, he says.

The Lord wants more coursework, which was largely abolished in 2013 because it was not fair.

I think Lord Baker was right the first time, during the 1980s. Testing at 16 is extremely important as it gives schools, universities, parents and employers a genuine guide to how children are doing.

Everyone is treated the same and those with wealthier parents who have sharp elbows can’t leverage an advantage as easily.

There are three basic ways of gauging a child’s progression through their education.

The first is continuous assessment, which involves coursework and classroom-based testing throughout the year.

It is, however, extremely hard to ensure that the same standards are applied everywhere. We have seen how teacher-based assessments during the pandemic have inflated grades and do not give reliable results.

Coursework at home favours those with parents who can help or pay for tutors.

The second method is timed coursework, in which children carry out the work at school under supervision.

They are allowed notes and they have prepared in advance and can have books to assist.

But teachers will have to interpret the rules so they might be applied differently, and again, some children will have parents who have helped them prepare for the assessment and even tutors can guide children beforehand.

The third method is exams. They are high stake and some children do better than others and it is true that wealthy parents can hire tutors.

However, even with these disadvantages, it is by far the best way of assessing children. It puts the onus mostly on the child because they are put on the spot and have to account for how they have prepared and worked over a period of time.

Some of the less attractive elements of exams can be mitigated by timed coursework so children can gain marks in other ways.

Nevertheless, exams remain the most accurate way of assessing performance.

Children will face many difficult things throughout their lives and the attempts by some to shield them from any form of difficulty or struggle is to do them a disservice.

We get tougher by going through tough experiences and not avoiding them.