GCSEs have improved, yet again. So it's very clear that standards have fallen. I can't see why every year we have the ritual of this person or that appearing on the television castigating the examination system for producing better results. I think we must be the only country in the world that beats itself up every year over what we should be celebrating as a major success. Yes, there are fewer students studying Modern Languages, at least French and German but rather more taking languages such as Polish (as consequence of immigration in the EU perhaps), Chinese and Japanese. We do have a deplorable record in studying Modern Languages...what a difference the twenty-two miles between Dover and Calais makes! Making them optional at Key Stage 4 was always going to result in falling numbers..even the idiots in the educational department in London must have recognised that. Is it surprising that schools, beset by league tables, 'persuade' their students to take GNVQs that are equivalent to five GCSEs that compel them to take more difficult options.
Instead of this annual period of collective angst around GCSEs and A Levels,perhaps it would be better if we were asking whether the examination system is 'fit for purpose'? Whether it provides the skills and knowledge needed for the emerging global society of the twenty-first century? What is clear is that while many students are successful in the examinations, there are huge numbers of people who are not. They leave school without even the basics in English and Maths, without any understanding of their role in their communities (however construed). They are educationally disfranchised from the start and it is little wonder that they become socially and politically disfranchised as well. They are today's 'underclass' not necessarily economically because many can earn good wages in the 'black' and legitimate economies but culturally because they have little or not connection to a society that, they may feel, provides them with little of worth. So for them the whole educational system provides them with little of value.
We have always had an educational system in which there is built-in failure. Whether payment by results in the nineteenth century or league tables today, there have always been a proportion of young people who fail and they fail even earlier now with Key Stage 1 and 2 tests. Is it any wonder than many turn away from society towards the attractive belonging of gang culture that provides a welcoming home for those society has deemed to have failed. This provides a status that the educational system clearly fails to provide. In a perverse way, it provides a sense of self-worth and 'dignity' that schools fail to provide despite all their efforts. Yes we should welcome the success of those students who have done well in the public examinations but we must also recognise the wasted potential of those who, for whatever reason, feel that schools have nothing to offer them.