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The great exam failure. By Charlotte Metcalf

Features | By Charlotte Metcalf

From 2025, pupils can type their GCSEs

The dumbing down of British exams began with the first GCSEs in 1987. Charlotte Metcalf mourns the end of O-levels

Whenever my daughters say, ‘I was sat’ (which is frequently), I ask them who exactly plonked them there.

I am becoming a dreary, Canute-like pedant, fighting a long-lost battle, given there is hardly a broadcaster on Radio 4 who seems to know the difference between ‘sitting’ and ‘sat’.

Plenty of oldies moan about deteriorating grammar standards, but sloppy grammar is a symptom of a far more serious decline in general knowledge, literacy and conversational and written fluency. The first GCSEs were taken in 1987. From then on, teenagers were required to do far less writing.

From 2025, the Edexcel exam board will allow English Language and English Literature GCSEs to be typed in full.

Thus the yawning intellectual divide between the over-50s who did O-levels and the under-50s restricted to GCSEs. With GCSEs, multiple choice became the norm in maths. It crept in fast to English comprehension and other subjects.

Recently, a client for whom I’d done some copywriting asked me why I could write. ‘Because I’m old,’ I answered.

Being able to write was a given in our generation. From a young age, we wrote letters, and all school work and exams were hand-written.

How many fountain pens are bought for children nowadays? I received a glossy Parker as a prize and sourced a bottle of turquoise Quink with great excitement. And I’ve never given up on fountain pens, though I now use disposable ones, because of the speed with which they glide across the page – essential in a written exam, a godsend for a note-taking journalist.

Perhaps it is fanciful to equate children’s no longer putting pen to paper with the relentless erosion of articulacy. But ordering one’s thoughts before committing them to paper helped you learn to construct an argument.

We mostly blame the phone and internet for a decline in academic standards, general knowledge and the ability to concentrate. Yet schools and universities have done little to adapt the curriculum to a digital age other than just shove everything online and drastically cut down on the face-to-face time pupils have with their teachers and university tutors.

My younger daughter’s university bedroom seems bare, certainly not of mess, but of the basics of academic study – books, notebooks, writing materials. Everything is done digitally, from delivering work to receiving a grade for it.

Since O-levels were scrapped, schools seem to have adopted a patronising attitude towards children, as if striving for academic excellence and being competitive might exclude or ‘trigger’ children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When seeking schools for my daughters, I attended an open day at a well-known, highly rated London state secondary school. We were ushered into a newly built hall where the headmaster stood beneath a huge screen. On it was projected the first page of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

I cheered up but, minutes later, the headmaster was berating the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, for widely distributing the novel to schools to encourage reading. Words categorised as difficult – such as ‘epoch’, ‘incredulity’, ‘conceded’ and ‘prophetic’ – were highlighted on the screen, as the headmaster thundered on about how unrealistic it was to expect children to understand such archaic language.

Why shouldn’t we push our children to higher levels of attainment? We don’t see athletics coaches suggesting it might induce anxiety to go the extra mile to compete for an Olympic medal.

Ferocious competition pushes champions to the edge of their endurance, but competitiveness in schools is now frowned on. Streaming, once the norm, is seen to disadvantage those less able or with learning difficulties. Schools avoid it in favour of inclusivity. But since when was life fair?

People weren’t in top streams across all subjects. The point of streaming was to allow those who were showing aptitude to be among a group of equally talented and competitive peers who would challenge any complacency.

Since Tony Blair’s major push for near-universal further education, universities have also dumbed down. A degree, though insisted on by most professions, is no longer proof of ability.

There will always be genius exceptions to the rule, but most parents have noticed a dramatic decline in general knowledge (thanks to a decline in fact-based teaching) and the ability to concentrate and read.

It’s too simple just to blame this on phones or TikTok. Blame our tired curriculum, failing to equip children for today’s workplace.

Employers are seeking imaginative, original, enquiring minds, capable of engagement to help find solutions for the mess our world finds itself in.

I showed my daughter the TED talk the late Sir Ken Robinson gave in 2006 on schools killing creativity. It resonated with her so heartily that she thought it had been recorded this year.

After she had to choose between drama and art at school, I’d watched her artistic tendencies and curiosity dwindling. Yet we need creativity, imagination and a thirst for exploration more than ever, because the workplace and the jobs within it are changing at an exponential rate.

Unless it undergoes a major overhaul, our education system is going to continue churning out generations woefully unprepared for the unprecedented challenges of the contemporary world.

This story was from April 2024 issue. Subscribe Now