Arabella Weir: Scrapping 'soft' subjects won't make GCSEs more 'rigorous' - it will just put some pupils off learning for life



Running a finger down the list of GCSE exams that are about to be scrapped, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the fatalities are subjects regarded by this Government, in particular teachers' pet (hah!) Michael Gove, as "less educationally rigorous" (covert Gove-speak for subjects not likely to be offered in fee-paying schools).

While it is true that this cull isn't being implemented by Gove directly, it's definitely got a strong whiff of the Education Minister about it, who, it would appear, is dead set on turning all schools into "simulacra" of Eton.

I've got no objection, per se, to streamlining, but must confess that this feels less like that and a wee bit more like social engineering via the back door. It goes without saying that kids whose sights (and moreover their parents' sights) are set on Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are unlikely to have taken home economics or PE at GCSE. But what about the kids for whom these subjects are the very means by which they engage with the overall learning process and for whom such qualifications are a meaningful and realistic achievement?

My two children are at Highgate Wood School, an educationally thriving, socially mixed comprehensive in north London. My 16-year-old daughter is mid-GCSEs as I write. Many of her peers are currently taking their GCSEs in woodwork, home economics, PE and other subjects on Ofqual's kill-list. I don't believe for one minute that the absence of these "less educationally rigorous" subjects will suddenly encourage these kids to discover an interest in, or an aptitude (never mind a purpose) for, Latin and further maths.

"Setting the bar higher", as Gove-ians would no doubt cry in defence of these measures, doesn't, for many, mean you find the wherewithal to jump higher. Indeed, it often means you just don't bother to jump at all. The bar is set too high, out of your sights, culturally, socially and domestically. A high bar can end up feeling like it demarcates a club of which you were outside from the start, and that doesn't want you as a member anyway.

Fifteen to 16, the age at which, nationally, GCSEs are taken, is relatively young; the kids are, by and large, still full of enthusiasm and, if not that, certainly energy – this should be harnessed to teach them that school is about being included, whatever your aptitude, in the education process; that it's about overall learning, which is in turn much more than acquiring exams, or it should be.

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In this country, given that education is compulsory until post-GCSE, we have a golden opportunity to corral all kids' interests and abilities. This is not the stage at which to introduce barriers to learning. A-levels have always, in my view, performed a natural selection process – if you're not interested, you won't take them and there's no need, at the earlier stage of GCSEs, to actively block a child's interest in whatever subject it may be that fires her or him.

Goodness, oops, I've just realised that the system I'm banging on about sounds a lot like, wait a minute, erm, it's on the tip of my tongue – got it! It sounds like comprehensive education, doesn't it? And there's my problem: this Government, it would seem, isn't in the slightest bit interested in that system. It wants to implement standards and tests that are bound to exclude those for whom educational rigour isn't necessarily accessible, for whatever reason. But I'm pretty sure that by doing so, it won't make generally disadvantaged kids strive harder. It will make them think that there's not much point in their joining in the first place.

Arabella Weir's latest book, 'The Rise and Rise of Tabitha Baird', will be published by Piccadilly Press in October

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