Friday, 30 July 2010

On the passing of GCSEs without systematic study or help from parents

I sometimes think that my daughter must be the only teenager who worked hard to achieve her GCSEs, just as I must be the only parent who put in a lot of effort to help her do so. According to practically all our friends, their children did no revision or studying at all and it is a miracle that they managed to get strings of As and A*s. The parents also generally claim to have done nothing to help the children pass their examinations; they were themselves too busy to do anything to help and so their child's academic success is a mystery to them. These are all children who attended school. It is not to be wondered at that when I hear similar claims being made by the parents of children who were home educated, I raise my eyebrows a little. Yet more children who did not study systematically or revise and yet got good grades. This is very mysterious, because both my daughter and I had to work very hard to achieve the same end. Perhaps she is particularly slow witted and needed a lot of extra coaching!

Now I have no idea about other parents and children, but in the case of many of those known to me personally, these stories of nobody doing much to get the kid to pass a lot of GCSEs at high grades are not really true. Parents who claim to have done nothing seem to forget the tutors they engaged for years, the attending church in order to get the kid into a good school, the piano and ballet lessons, endless visits to museums, rows with the kids to make them do their homework, helping them with their coursework, forbidding them permission to go out during the run-up to the exams so that they revise and all the rest of the efforts which they made.

Why do parents tell these fairy stories to each other about all this lack of effort on both their part and that of their children? Partly I suppose because nobody wants to appear to be a desperate and pushy parent! Much more impressive to be laid back and cool and not to beaver away neurotically for years just to get your kids into a good university. Telling other parents that your kid didn't revise or study and yet still passed a clutch of examinations is a subtle way of boasting. They are saying, in effect, 'My daughter is so talented and bright that she didn't need to work. She simply absorbed the content of the GCSE courses easily and did not have to revise it just before the exam. What a brain-box!' Of course, it is also laying up a brilliant alibi for yourself if your child does muff up her GCSEs. You can simply say, 'Yes, I told you she didn't do any work!' It's a win-win situation really.

How likely is it that a child would really pass GCSEs without studying hard and putting in a lot of work? Not very likely at all I would say. One picks up all sorts of knowledge casually just from ordinary day to day reading of newspapers and magazines, watching television, surfing the net and so on. This means that anybody concerned with the environment, climate change or even science in general is likely to know that plants grow by taking water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining them together in process known as photosynthesis. This is simply the sort of general knowledge that any educated person might be expected to possess. It is not hard to see how anybody, even a person who has never studied for GCSEs or anything else might acquire this sort of information more or les automatically without anybody telling them to do so. However when I meet a teenager who is able to set down the correct balanced formula for this process, that is to say;

6 CO2 + 12 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

then I am pretty sure that she has made a conscious effort to learn it by heart. What possible reason could anybody, even somebody passionately concerned about trees and the environment, have for wanting to know the chemical formula for glucose? This is most definitely not the sort of general knowledge which one picks up casually in the course of reading about plants. It is not the sort of thing which anybody apart from a chemist, biologist or teenager swotting from an examination would ever know! It is of course a vital piece of information if one wants to pass a GCSE in biology, which is pretty well the only reason anyone ever learns it.

The same can be said of the minerals which plants need to grow effectively. Knowing the importance of these minerals is general knowledge which most of us have. The gardeners among us could also talk about NPK fertilisers and be aware that these contain potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. We might even know about their role in eutrophication. We are unlikely though to know the precise proportions for a balanced NPK fertiliser and the symptoms of deficiency in plants of one of these elements. Again, to get an A* at biology, you must know this.

I make no bones at all about the fact that I am myself a pushy and ambitious parent who made damned sure that his daughter studied and got a clutch of good GCSEs. Both of us worked extremely hard towards that end, which, as I say, sets me apart from most of parents whom I know or of whom I have heard. There may perhaps be teenagers who learn for fun about Snell's Law, the formula for photosynthesis and the precise reasons for the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, but I think that they are as rare as rocking-horse shit. About as rare in fact as parents who do not do all that they can to ensure that their children pass these important examinations at the age of fifteen or sixteen. For the rest of us, it is hard slog involving a good deal of work for both parent and child.


  1. Of course it involves a long, hard slog (although not necessarily as long as it would if they were in school). All the HE parents I know whose kids took IGCSE's at the same time as my 16 yo were highly involved and highly motivated to encourage them to revise, help them memorise those formulae etc. I know I did. In fact, my peer group joked about how WE should have been awarded A*s ourselves, given how well we all knew the course material.

    However, I do still read that stuff about kids not doing a lick of work myself from time to time. The only way I think it is possible really, is if the child is only doing one or two subjects and has Asperger's Syndrome. Kids like that really do seem to suck up information like a vacuum cleaner with apparent ease. Although, I would have thought that even they would need guidance on exactly how to spew them out again in the right context.

    No one get at me for saying this. I am the daughter of someone with AS. I know what I'm talking about.

    Mrs Anon

  2. A few thoughts ...

    a) on the whole my HE daughter worked very hard; ie several hours a day plodding through the syllabuses and eventually past papers.

    b) we didn't spend as long (in overall time) as a school child would though eg we did chemistry IGCSE in 7 months - although we did more concentrated work than a school timetable would allow.

    c) My dd did however pass (with a C) IGCSE physics in 3 days. I am not particularly proud of this from an educational point of view, but as she was already entered, she did 3 days of past papers before the exam and that was it. BUT - she already knew about some topics eg radioactivity and green energy from overlap with other subjects and she has a scientific sort of mind. In addition I don't suppose the pass mark for a C was particularly high!

    d) Passing and doing well in exams though is a bit of an odd skill; for some very bright children it is made to look remarkably easy. I am not saying they innately know the facts of photosynthesis - but they can pick them up and retain them very quickly, so that it may appear that the process of learning didn't really go on at all. As I have said before, my daughter is autistic so she has the (sometimes unfortunate habit) of telling people lots of odd information that they probably have no desire to hear. One example would be the atomic masses of elements - she certainly has not sat down to learn them, and her knowledge is of no advantage to her because you get data sheets in the actual exams anyway, but she has picked up these and a million other odd chemical facts somewhere in passing- and because of her autism we all get to hear them! My eldest son (not home educated) has never to my knowledge revised for any exam- yes, he studied the subjects in the first place - ie someone taught the facts and he mostly transferred what was being said into his exercise books and did a few past papers immediately before the exams. I don't think he ever need to look at what he wrote again though - he just has an amazingly retentive memory. In his A levels he did say that the music one was the hardest because you actually had to do some work - ie compositions and harmonies and so on, rather than merely turn up and answer the questions as was the case for maths and physics etc.

    So I do think that for GSCE at least and some A levels, the most talented may not strictly need to revise- but I am not saying that they didn't need to have someway of stdying the subject in the first place. So the sort of comments such as "my child never revises" may be true for a few, but that phrase isn't the same as saying they haven't covered the topics required by some method in one way or another.

    Returning to my eldest - he is a good pianist who plays every Sunday for church. Now someone is careful to inform him a few days in advance of the pieces and so on, but I can honestly say he never practises. Every Sunday he arrives before the service just in time to set up and if the hymn/song is new the the first time he sees it will be when he opens the page at the appropriate time. He gets away with this 99% of the time - but although it is true that he never practices for this, he did of course grind his way (sometimes painfully) though all the music grades and does also spend hours of the week still playing/practising - just not those Sunday tunes. The skills he has developed transfer themselves into being able to sightread on a Sunday and get away with it.

    I suppose I am saying the statements such as "my child did no revision" are ambigious. Like yuo I know that no child is born with the facts of GCSE curriculum embedded in them; they need to learnn them somehow, but I also know that for a few, the transfer of the facts is so effortless it may appear not to have happened.

  3. Doesn't the amount of work the child needs to do depend on the child's ability and aptitude, rather than how hard they work? My best grades at O level were for English language, French, Latin and Biology. The only one of those I really had to work for was Latin. The rest were pretty effortless because I was good at the subjects and enjoyed them, so picked up what I needed to know without having to work hard.

    By contrast, I put a considerable amount of effort into Chemistry, Physics and Maths and didn't do particularly well.

    If your daughter hadn't worked hard, she might still have got A*s - who knows?

  4. "The only way I think it is possible really, is if the child is only doing one or two subjects and has Asperger's Syndrome. Kids like that really do seem to suck up information like a vacuum cleaner with apparent ease."

    Very true. I knew an AS kid who knew the periodic table by heart and could recite chemical formual and balanced equations by the cartload. Did brilliantly at sciences, not so well at English though!

  5. "If your daughter hadn't worked hard, she might still have got A*s - who knows?"

    Not a gamble which I felt incined to take!

  6. "Not a gamble which I felt incined to take!"

    But some parents/children have taken this gamble, and reported on the outcomes and you are essentially saying they can't be right.

  7. Suzyg, there also the fact that if you love a subject, it just doesn't feel like work.

    I know that my revision for History O Level was watching the World At War series. I loved History and watching those felt like a treat for me. But lucky for me, I had hit upon a method of learning which seemed as though it involved no work.

    Ability and aptitude are hard to define, aren't they? Loving something is so important too.

    Mrs Anon

  8. By the way, Mrs Anon, allow me to welcome you back; your common sense view and temperate comments have been much missed. I think the 'chess blokey' has moved on in recent weeks!

  9. "Of course it involves a long, hard slog "

    Not apparently for everybody, Mrs Anon. This post was partly inspired by a recent comment from somebody who told us that her daughter, 'got A*s without doing a stroke of work' and was also, 'completely self-taught'. I am envious indeed!

  10. "you are essentially saying they can't be right."

    I hope that this is not going to end up with a long, tedious series of posts about lying! I am saying that almost every parent in my circle of friends makes this claim in varying degrees and if it does happen, then I do not think it at all common.

  11. No, what I am saying is that the model of learning which says you have to work hard to get good exam results is flawed. Schools are hardly likely to want to admit this because they want to maximise their GCSE results and don't want pupils who do need to work hard to start slacking.

    Some parents might be showing off, some might have forgotten how much effort they contributed to their child's attainment, but others might be genuinely surprised at their child's exam result considering how little work they put into it.

    You don't even know if the amount of work Simone put into her exam preparation was actually necessary in order to achieve the grades she did. She might have massively over-prepared.

    I see no reason to dispute the claims of parents because of assumptions you have made about why your daughter's did well.

  12. " She might have massively over-prepared."

    Of course she massively over-prepared! I am sure that that doing 10% less work or even 20%, perhaps even 30% or 40% might have yielded the same results. However in order to get onto the summer schools at Oxford and Cambridge universities this year, she needed to have a string of A* results. The summer schools themsleves are important because they both go on the standard UCCA forms and are also mentioned in the personal statement. I did not want to take any chances.

    For UCCA, read UCAS of course.

  13. Obviously one can never be exactly sure how much work is necessary to prepare for any exam; past papers are a good indication of course- I suppose that if my child were getting 100% on those I would feel we had done enough.

    It is slightly different teaching other peoples children; which I do. Then I have a pre programmed view of what I want to get through and when and we do all the past papers; regardless of results. That is what the parents expect; I do attempt to negotiate on "homework" ie I always say, "if you find this easy don't do al the questions but move on more rapidly" but actually many of the students and/or their parents aren't happy with this - they will always do everything! Not sure what that proves!

  14. "This post was partly inspired by a recent comment from somebody who told us that her daughter, 'got A*s without doing a stroke of work' and was also, 'completely self-taught'."

    But she did say that this was true of the subjects her child was particularly interested in. Her child had to put more effort in and learnt new material on the courses for subjects she was less interested in.

  15. Simon wrote,

    ""The only way I think it is possible really, is if the child is only doing one or two subjects and has Asperger's Syndrome. Kids like that really do seem to suck up information like a vacuum cleaner with apparent ease."

    "Very true. I knew an AS kid who knew the periodic table by heart and could recite chemical formual and balanced equations by the cartload. Did brilliantly at sciences, not so well at English though! "

    So why did you find it so difficult to believe the example that seems to have fired you up this time? You previously quoted her comment:

    'My AS child took science GCSE's as a way of consolidating her knowledge, and was very disappointed when she realised that her knowledge already far exceeded that which was necessary for the GCSE course. She got A*s without doing a stroke of work. She is completely self-taught, and was teaching me by the age of 11.'

    Why do you believe one but not the other?

  16. Simon said:
    "However when I meet a teenager who is able to set down the correct balanced formula for this process, that is to say;

    6 CO2 + 12 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

    then I am pretty sure that she has made a conscious effort to learn it by heart. What possible reason could anybody, even somebody passionately concerned about trees and the environment, have for wanting to know the chemical formula for glucose?"

    Sadly, this is probably true these days, when school science is largely about mindless regurgitation of facts; yet that simple formula tells an important story (at least it does when you add photons from sunlight to the left side) and is easy to remember once you understand what's going on.

    Understanding and problem solving have declined catastrophically to the point where universities are having to modify their science courses (particularly the physical ones) and provide remedial education in order to deal with the shortcomings of school science "education".

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