Back to school with options needed for a ‘broad brush’ education – Jayne Dowle

Many students are now considering their exam options.
Many students are now considering their exam options.
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MY daughter Lizzie heads back to school facing her biggest test so far. In February, she will begin choosing her GCSE options.

She’s already worrying that she’s come late to the party. Unlike many local secondary schools, her academy has opted to start GCSE study in Year 10, giving pupils a two-year course.

Boris Johnson during a school visit with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (right).

Boris Johnson during a school visit with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (right).

Some of her Year 9 friends are already doing them. As a parent I can see both sides of the argument: three years studying a subject to the GCSE curriculum is more likely to result in a higher grade at the end, but, then again, a core selection means a less-rounded education overall.

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It also puts the onus entirely on study. In the past year, 14-year-old Lizzie has enjoyed the freedom to explore extra-curricular activities, in particular dance. In this she is blessed by having a performing arts teacher who believes passionately in helping girls to believe in themselves. In a world where the pressure to look and behave a certain way is horrendous, this is a bonus which shouldn’t be under-estimated.

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Many pupils are now considering their GCSE options.

Many pupils are now considering their GCSE options.

Anyway, I digress. Lizzie and her friends talk of little else but their ‘options’. When I am allowed a word in edgeways, I tend to repeat the same two salient points: I believe wholeheartedly that Lizzie should continue to study a language, but I wish it was French rather than the Spanish she was allocated at the start of Year 7 (because French is the core for so much else). In a perfect world, she wouldn’t have to choose between history or geography as, in my humble opinion, both hold equal interest and merit.

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If I was Scarborough-born Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, I’d be looking at how a new, inspiring humanities GCSE might be devised which would engage young people in this most crucial of subject areas.

Figures released by Ofqual in 2018 showed a worrying trend; fewer students are going on to take humanities subjects at A-Level than ever, with an 11 per cent drop in numbers studying geography alone. Instead, they are being encouraged in a drive towards STEM subjects such as maths and science. Not a bad thing, at all, don’t get me wrong. However, it’s important to keep a balance.

Call me an old idealist, but we can’t turn our backs entirely on subjects which show young people how to research complex philosophies, amass factual information and construct and deliver a convincing argument. With respect to mathematicians, handling figures and equations is not the same. We’re in danger of losing both the nuance and the broad brush in education, and that worries me.

For instance, I had an interesting chat with a bright A-Level student during the election who bemoaned the fact that she had never really been taught how the British political system worked. This young woman’s demanding roster of GCSEs, in which she achieved a clutch of outstanding grades, did not cover the basics of British democratic life. I spoke to her fondly of my own proud A-Level in British government and politics. Yes, it’s more than three decades since I studied this subject, but almost every day I’m reminded how useful it was.

There I go again, jumping ahead. As my daughter keeps reminding me, what we need to do is to focus on the next two years, not worry about the two which will come after when she will hopefully be studying A-Levels.

However, in my defence, I am aware that GCSEs are not just proof that she has reached a decent standard in the basics of English, maths and science, but the subjects she chooses will also form a launch pad to propel her towards the future.

In this, she will be competing not just with her classmates, but the brightest and best from highly-academic schools and colleges nationwide, including selective sixth-form colleges.

Whilst it is heartening to hear of the Prime Minister’s plans for the North of England, I look forward to learning how he intends to balance up such educational opportunities.

Lizzie’s Year 9 has been punctuated by a series of speakers coming into school to tell pupils that being from Barnsley shouldn’t blight their chances of higher education and taking up an interesting career. Also, I’m heartened that her school is now intervening early and organising visits to Russell Group universities and Oxbridge, raising aspirations and widening horizons.

However, it’s still not enough, I fear. Ask me again when I’ve seen what comprehensive school kid Gavin Williamson – who left the University of Bradford with a degree in social sciences – can do for his home region.