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The Problem With GCSEs

English education, or more widely English society, has become fixated on competition and success. This is epitomised by the previous education secretary Michael Gove's mathematically impossible comment that the majority of children should achieve above average. The overriding message is that we all need to be winners. But we can't all be winners while we live in a steeply hierarchical and hyper-competitive society where only a privileged minority are destined to be winners leaving the majority positioned as educational losers.

In my book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education & the Working Classes, I write that the damaging consequences of this system are evident as early as primary school with nine and ten year olds gaining average and below average scores in their SATs test claiming they were 'rubbish learners', 'no good', or even that they 'count for nothing'. At secondary school level, ethnically diverse working class children talked of their belief that their relative lack of success means they faced a bleak future. 

This toxic 'winner takes all' environment has resulted in England being top of the OECD league table for routine learning and memorisation (just below Uruguay) and also top of the league table for children being left out and excluded at school. In other words, our education system is both unimaginative and unfair. But the point at which this toxic climate does the most damage is at the stage of GCSEs.

Our excessive testing regime has always had a searing negative impact on the self esteem and self-worth of those labelled as educational failures, but it has now started to have a corrosive impact on social mixing in schools. In recent interviews I conducted with high-attaining 14 and 15-year-olds they talked of not mixing with those predicted lower grades in case it affected their own performance.

This hyper-competitiveness has spilled over into young people's levels of well-being with many young people experiencing acute stress, anxiety, and even depression as a result of the academic pressures they face.

However, the consequences are most damaging for the least privileged in society, those children and young people growing up in poverty. The most recent statistics show that 30% of children and young people are growing up in poverty which means that at least two thirds of working class children attending schools are experiencing poverty and a degree of deprivation.

That relative deprivation extends to their school as well as their home experiences. They attend the worst resourced schools which have the least experienced teachers and the highest turnover of staff. They then enter a labour market that has become increasingly exploitative and oppressive at all levels but particularly for those with no or modest academic credentials.

Rather than focussing on whether the GCSE results are better or worse than last year, and agonising about how to deal with the long tail of underperformance, those of us concerned with social justice in education need to widen the parameters of the debate.

The policy changes required have to be far more widewider ranging and radical than tinkering yet again with GCSEs. Crucially, creativity and critical thinking should be at the heart of school-based learning rather than a heavily content-laden curriculum, which many young people view as boring and irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps then England would be in a position to move from its ignominious position at the bottom of the international league table for deep thinking and intrinsic motivation in learning. 

Instead of lauding the winners while increasingly discounting the achievements of all those who are not 'the very best', we should work to create an educational system that realises the potential of all children, recognising that potential is not solely academic, it is often vocational, artistic, rooted in practical and physical abilities as well as intellectual ones.

Diane Reay is Professor of Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge