The publication of GCSE results today seems to me to be a moment for reflecting upon what these examinations mean to home educating families. One often sees things written by parents who are educating their own children that minimise the importance of GCSEs and suggest that they are hardly worth having, so devalued have they become by so-called 'grade inflation'. This strikes me as a neat excuse for indolence; why should we bother with them, they aren't really worth anything anyway? The truth is that GCSEs are becoming ever more important. Indeed, without them young people face almost insurmountable problems in their future lives.
Let us begin by looking at an article from today's Daily Telegraph:
This article suggests that many universities now use GCSEs to weed out those candidates whom they feel are not really worth bothering with. In other words, they first select those with a string of As and A*s and then chuck out the rest. This process is done regardless of the A levels, OU credits or International Baccalaureate scores. In short: no GCSEs, no consideration. With the squeeze on places at university, this is likely to be even more the case this year and for the foreseeable future. Any young person who wishes to take his pick of universities had better have a clutch of As and A*s at GCSE. Otherwise, he will be restricted to the less prestigious universities or indeed none at all the way things are this year. So for higher education GCSEs are, as I have been saying for years, absolutely vital.
Of course, not everybody wishes to go into higher education. Some young people wish to get jobs at sixteen or eighteen. Here again, the lack of GCSEs is likely to prove a grave disadvantage to them. In its Survey of Employers, published by the Learning and Skills Council in 2006, many employers revealed that they would not even consider giving an interview to a teenager without any GCSEs at all. In fact GCSEs were of huge importance to the potential employers in deciding who they would take. In employment too, as well as in higher education, the lack of GCSEs is a serious handicap for any young person. With rising unemployment, this too will tend to make the GCSEs which an applicant has of crucial importance.
There were two reasons why it seemed to me a wise move to ensure that my daughter had a string of A* GCSEs. Firstly, the information contained in the specifications for these examinations is very useful in itself. Rather than devise a curriculum of my own, the biology, chemistry and physics International GCSE specifications already had in outline the scientific knowledge which a reasonably well educated person should have at her disposal. From that point of view they were valuable for their own sake. They are also useful for making sure that a young person has as many choices as possible in life. My daughter hopes to apply to a Russell Group university. For this, at least six A* GCSEs are indispensable. If, on the other hand, she wished to start work at once, then eight A* GCSEs in academic subjects would impress any potential employer. It is a win-win situation, no matter what she chooses to do. All that we have done is ensure that she has as many options as possible for her future life.
Failing to take all those GCSEs would have curtailed her choices. To give one example. She hopes to apply, as I said, to universities in the Russell Group. The fact that she has been to two summer schools this year, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge universities, will be a great help in this; just what looks good on the personal statement. However, to get on those summer schools in the first place, it was necessary to have a string of A*s. Without them, no summer school.
In his judgement in the case of R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust in 1985, Mr Justice Woolf defined a suitable education as one which:
Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a
member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as
it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some
other form of life if he wishes to do so.
It seems to me that by failing to arrange for their children to sit and take GCSEs, many home educating parents are indeed taking an action which will 'foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so'. Children are not really able to foresee the consequences of not studying for GCSEs and it is not fair to thrust the responsibility for such a serious decision with so far-reaching implications upon them. Few children probably read the Daily Telegraph and will not be aware that in several years time when they might wish to apply to university, that their lack of GCSEs might disqualify them before they have even sent in their UCAS form. As parents though, we know and we have the responsibility to see that their future prospects for either higher education or employment are not wantonly blighted in this way. That is what home education is for parents; a serious of duties and responsibilities to do the best for our children. Those who would shirk these duties by hiding behind some mythical 'right to home educate' and who seek to pass the buck to their children for serious decisions affecting their future life, should think very carefully about the consequences for those children.