Jayne Dowle: The GCSE compromise as my Jack decides his exam options - and surprises me

Childcare is now on the GCSE curriculum.
Childcare is now on the GCSE curriculum.
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THE open evening has been attended, the teachers have been questioned and we’ve had our share of heated debate.

My son Jack’s GCSE options have been agreed. His life as an adult begins about now. And the process has revealed rather more than I ever imagined about the inner workings not just of my son’s mind, but our education system.

Let’s do the simple bit first. All pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to take the “core” GCSE subjects of English, maths and science. In Jack’s academy school this is fairly straightforward; English literature and language are together as one, maths is maths while the science GCSE encompasses chemistry, physics and biology.

After this, though, you are required to hold more than one thought in your head simultaneously. This can be a difficult skill for parents, never mind teenagers. The pupils at Jack’s school are divided into “pathways” – blue, green and purple, a fact I didn’t realise until that evening.

The colour of your pathway determines whether you end up taking a lot of academic subjects, mostly vocational choices or a mixture of the two. Like most of his friends – I was relieved to find – Jack is on blue. He has always struggled with literacy and receives support for his reading, and also has issues with concentration. Picking his GCSEs requires sensitivity. We don’t want him pigeon-holed as a poor learner, yet we don’t want him terrified by rigorous academic demands.

The blue pathway allows him to do both art and photography, which suits his visual ability. It also means he can do his number one choice, history, which pleases his mother immensely. I am delighted to see that the curriculum includes wide-ranging and accessible study; the Elizabethan period (Blackadder), the First World War (more Blackadder) and the Cold War (Kraftwerk).

He can’t, however, do geography as well. This is the case in most state schools I understand. I collared the head-teacher, a woman I have a lot of respect for, to ask about this. She has turned around a school left reeling from a damning Ofsted report into a place of learning which is both inspiring and supportive.

However, she pointed out that two “heavy” subjects can be too much of a burden for some pupils. I got the feeling that she was saying this with one concerned eye on Jack’s ability to cope and the other on getting her school’s overall GCSE pass figures up as high as possible. This is not vanity. It’s necessity. Far too many schools in Barnsley are failing to reach national targets for GCSE passes.

Jack’s year will be amongst the first to be marked on the new 1 to 9 scale introduced by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. Under the new system, a Grade 5 rather than a “C” will be regarded as a “good pass” by further education courses and employers. I got the feeling that the head was nervous: no point putting pushing the kids too hard, because it might be counter-productive. That’s why Jack and his cohort are only doing seven GCSEs in total. Gone are the days of putting pupils in for 10 or 11 qualifications, encouraging them to take papers early and cramming in mountains of coursework. Now it’s quality not quantity, with a focus on exams. I can see the sense in that.

Cue the first big issue of the evening. On this pathway a foreign language, French, Spanish or German, is optional. On purple, it’s compulsory. I’ve tried. I’ve cajoled. I’ve even mentioned the potential of doors opening to “glamorous” careers such as a holiday rep. Nothing, though, will persuade my son that studying a foreign language to GCSE level will be anything but a two-year-long headache.

Reluctantly, I gave in. No French. No foreign language at all.

However, this concession did give me leverage for the next challenge: PE. Jack loves sport. Lately, though, I’ve noticed his interests changing. He could still tell you the names of every player, every manager and the stats of every match played this season (I think). However, his own participation is being supplanted by a growing fascination with films, music and fashion.

What’s the use of starting a GCSE in PE if you don’t actually play sport? This was my opening gambit. And this is where my son threw me a total curveball. Actually, instead of PE, he wants to do a GCSE in, wait for it… childcare.

My big lumbering lad, already taller and stronger than me at the age of 13, wants to explore the possibility of working with children when he leaves school. And why not? He has a natural affinity with little ones, somehow 
finds endless patience for their questions and is blessed with a lovely, friendly manner.

Just think of the job opportunities this could open up. Everyone knows there are nowhere near enough male nursery workers and primary school-teachers, for a start. The teacher looked delighted. Jack looked proud. I probably looked flabbergasted. Childcare GCSE? This options evening gave us more choices than I ever imagined.