One sometimes sees a news item which although seemingly trivial in itself, appears on reflection to indicate something of a sea change in attitudes or opinions. One such appeared a few days ago. It was to the effect that some high profile employers take at least as much notice of the GCSEs which a prospective employee has, as they do of the quality of his or her degree. This could have serious repercussions in the world of home education. A number of universities already set more store than others by GCSEs when making offers; Oxford for example expects as routine, six or eight at A*.
For some years now, the feeling among home educators is that they don’t generally need to bother with GCSEs and if they do then it need only be English and Mathematics. It is common to hear remarks like, “Oh, nobody takes GCSEs seriously now, they’re completely devalued”. Or again, “It’s up to my daughter if she takes any exams”. All the evidence is that precisely the opposite is happening, that is to say rather than becoming less important as the years go by, GCSEs appear to be actually growing in significance for employers, universities and colleges of further education. I have mixed feelings about this trend, but it is undeniably true that this seems to be the way that things are moving.
I have of course remarked before on the number of colleges and sixth forms who will not accept as A level students any teenager who does not have at least five GCSEs. This means in practice that home educated children often end up on arts based courses rather than academic ones. This is because these are the sort of courses which can be accessed by audition or portfolio. Even studying GCSEs when they are sixteen is becoming very hard. Few areas now have colleges which offer GCSE courses and those that do often want the student already to have some GCSEs, a genuine Catch 22 situation! If employers too are going to start grading job applicants, even those who have degrees, by the number of GCSEs, then the prospect for teenagers who have none at all may soon be pretty bleak.
Many parents do not face up to this problem until their children are fourteen. Sometimes they then try and enter them for a few GCSEs, only to discover that the child has not the necessary skills to apply herself for the sustained and methodical study needed to take a formal qualification like the GCSE. Others pin their hopes on Open University points and various non-conventional examinations in basic English. Unfortunately, both colleges and universities tend to be a little sniffy about some of this. They actually want GCSEs.
This is not really leading anywhere in particular, I am just thinking out loud. I can assure readers that I do not myself especially value GCSEs, but many do. I have a strong suspicion that a few years down the line it will be all but impossible for a child to gain access to either a job or post sixteen education without the them. This would of course really make autonomous education impossible, proving even more effective than anything which Graham Badman’s report recommends. The New Diplomas are not really suitable for home educated children and neither is the International Baccalaureate. The bad news is that the GCSEs themselves are moving towards a system where controlled assessments in the classroom will be needed.
I am guessing that pretty soon home educating parents will be faced with two choices. Either they will continue to reject studying as a routine business for GCSEs, in which case their children will not be able to go on to college or university, or indeed get any but the most menial job. Failing this they will be obliged to register their children at least part of the time at schools so that they are able to take GCSEs there and take part in the controlled assessments and so on which must be undertaken in classrooms. Either way, I think that the days of home educators refusing to engage with the educational system at all could well be numbered.