Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?

Scrap GCSEs and help develop children’s character

What a refreshing change to actually have a head teacher criticise the headlong dash for A* and A grades.

Jenny Brown, head of the highly academic St Albans High School for Girls, said children were forced to sit dozens of exams which they don’t need.

She thinks 4 or 5 would be enough – English, Maths, A Science and a couple more (I’d like to see a foreign language being compulsory).

She admits this will create tension between school,s and pushy parents. She believes  “we have to educate and lead parents. It is insane that at the age of 16 we have an eight-week period where (they) have to sit for over eight weeks of exam sessions, something like 24 papers”. At present her pupils take about 10 GCSEs with 90% getting A* or As so she probably has an uphill struggle.

Education is not a mad qualification grab. Employers are increasingly moving to qualification-blind applications and are assessing and making hiring decisions about qualities of character and mind in an hour-long interview” she added.

The qualities she is talking about that she thinks employers want are: curiosity, adaptability, and being a decent person with integrity. She believes schools have to help pupils develop in these areas. I couldn’t agree more.

She is not alone in these, what appear to me, sensible views. Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, called GCSEs a lot of wasted time and recommended only 4 key skills be tested at age 16.

Even President Macron of France is calling for the French baccalaureate to be simplified.

Most countries only test at 18 before university. British children are among the most tested in the world but what good does it do them?


English kids are not as clever as they’ve been told


Forget all the A* stuff. When it comes to global comparisons our kids are not doing very well at all.

They are the most illiterate in the developed world, according to a survey by the OECD.

It warned that many young people are graduating with only a basic grasp of English and Maths and are unlikely to be able to get a job in which they can afford to pay off their student loans.

English teenagers aged 16-19 were rated the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy and 22nd in numeracy. In contrast pensioners or those close to retirement age were among the highest ranked of their age group.

Most illiterate nations

  1. England
  2. Spain
  3. US
  4. Italy
  5. school_children_holding_learn_blocks_1600_wht_12276France
  6. Ireland
  7. Canada
  8. Austria
  9. Northern Ireland
  10. Germany
  11. Norway
  12. Sweden
  13. Denmark
  14. Slovak Republic
  15. Czech Republic
  16. Belgium
  17. Australia
  18. Poland
  19. Estonia
  20. Finland
  21. The Netherlands
  22. Japan
  23. Korea

The number of low-skilled people in England is three times…

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Maggie, you were right but you got it wrong

study_text_md_nwmThe recent release of cabinet papers from the National Archives shocked me. I found I was in agreement with one of the most divisive Prime Ministers this country has ever had.

Margaret Thatcher – milk snatcher –  had been Education Secretary but when she became PM that jobs went to Sir Keith Joseph.

In 1986 he was keen to replace GCE and CSE examinations with the combined GCSE examinations, which we still have today.

Thatcher was severely critical of them and wanted their implementation to be delayed for a couple of years to “ensure that the syllabus was sufficiently rigorous, the course work limited and properly assessed, and teachers properly trained“.

She thought that GCSEs:

  1. lacked rigour and would lead to lower standards
  2. assessment by the pupils own teachers offered more scope for teacher bias
  3. would be a shift away from the traditional approach to learning and create a “can’t fail” mentality


She has been proved right on all three counts. Multiple choice questions, shared project work, parental (and teacher) input. Basically a dumbing down approach. Now everyone expects to get As or A*s and the whole examination process has been devalued right through to universities offering more 1sts than ever before to attract students.

Her adviser at the time, Brian Griffiths, had said “the increased emphasis on project work course assessment is a bias towards certain kinds of parents; it is also open to great abuse from committed left-wing teachers“, but the Education Secretary insisted that the new exams should be introduced as soon as possible.

The reason she finally agreed was because of the militancy in the teaching unions who were in dispute over pay. They had also criticised the GCSE system. So as not to appear to concede anything to the unions she agreed to go ahead and introduce them.

Because of her intense dislike of unions (which we’d already seen with the miners’ strike) she made an emotional not a rational decision which every conservative government since has tried to reform.

Michael Gove’s special adviser Dominic Cummings said it had been a big mistake. “It led to the devaluation of A levels and degrees at even the best universities and led to a collapse in confidence in the integrity of the exam system”.


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It doesn’t add up

Despite recent governments investing £billions researchers at Kings College and Durham University have found no improvement in children’s understanding of maths.

In fact the number of 14 year-olds who know virtually nothing about maths has doubled in the last 30 years.

Despite all the fanfares about GCSE  and A level grades improving year on year anyone with half a brain knew that things weren’t what they seemed. Take grade inflation for a start. Grade A in GCSE maths reflects the same level of knowledge as a grade C in the late 1970s (which means I must have an A*** equivalent for my GCE maths).

Examples of questions given in the Times report last week were: O level maths 1979: “Prove that the internal bisector of any angle of a triangle..”; GCSE maths 2010: “Write the number 50,000 in words”, say it all.

The research was presented to the British Educational Research Association last week. The researchers compared results from 1979 with 2008-9 at year 9, mostly aged 14. They looked at elementary tests of algebra, ratio, decimals, and fractions. The proportion of pupils scoring the lowest grade went up from 6% to 16% in algebra and from 7% to 14% in ratio tests but results were broadly the same overall.

Yet 59% of pupils got a grade C this year compared with 22% in the early 1980s. As the researchers say “this is highly implausable” which is one way to put it. An absolute disgrace and a disservice to the pupils who think they have good grades but will struggle in the real world is more to the point I think.

Modular exams with endless repeats, group course work rather than strict exams, reliance on calculators, parental input, teachers fixing grades, and poor teachers  have all been blamed.

One thing everyone seems to agree on however is the need for more specialist maths teachers if we are not to continue producing innumerate young adults.