Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Cartoonish idiocy

Pupils will be able to gain 25 per cent of their marks in geography GCSE by drawing cartoons and writing poetry.

The Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board yesterday unveiled a course which allows assessment through "creative pupil presentation methods".

These include writing poems and reflective journals, drawing cartoons and making videos, podcasts and posters.

The shake-up is designed to make geography more interesting for teenagers and comes after a fall in numbers taking the subject at GCSE. Last year, 213,124 pupils sat geography GCSE, down from 227,832 in 2004.

The board's "geography A" syllabus allows pupils to study "relevant" topics including the socioeconomic impact of supermarkets.

It is divided into four units, each worth 25 per cent of the total marks.

A unit called You as a Global Citizen is internally assessed by teachers and requires two written tasks.

Task one is to "investigate how consumer decisions may have a positive or negative impact on people", while task two requires students to "investigate a local retail area" such as a shopping centre or out-of-town retail park.

The specification says: "Presentation of this work can take a variety of formats including, for example, presentations, poems, posters, video, oral, reflective journals, fieldwork data collection sheets, research tasks, reports, extended writing and cartoons."

Another unit, Shaping Our Fast Changing World, says that teachers should ensure their pupils have acquired skills including fieldwork techniques and "cartoon interpretation".

The decline in the number of candidates sitting exams in traditional subjects is something that I have noted before, in respect of history and modern languages, both of which are now studied to GCSE by only a minority of pupils. Instead, an increasing number of GCSE and A-level candidates are taking exams in such new disciplines as the infamous media studies, which in some cases is even replacing the generally compulsory English literature exam. The same trend is seen at A-level, where media studies, which was found to be the easiest of all A-levels by an exam watchdog earlier this year, has overtaken physics in popularity.

The rise of these new subjects can be explained, I believe, by the very fact that they do tend to be easier. Weak pupils at least, and perhaps some bright but lazy ones as well, see such subjects as a less arduous route to a decent GCSE or A-level grade than the traditional subjects. This results in a race to the bottom, as exam boards seek to draw pupils back to the traditional subjects by making them easier (a process barely disguised by the use of buzzwords such as "more interesting" and "more relevant"), as we see in this case, and in the recent launch of modular GCSEs by OCR, the same board that is behind these interesting revisions to the geography syllabus. Ultimately, this lowering of standards will benefit no one, and certainly not the pupils, who will increasingly be left with an inferior education, while being told that they are the "best qualified generation in history".

On the plus side, there is something of a backlash against the decline in standards, apparent in the news today that state schools will be able to follow many of Britain's leading public schools in
dropping A-levels altogether, and instead offering a new, supposedly tougher, qualification (the "Pre-U") modelled on the old two-year A-level, which was abolished in 2000, and replaced with the current, modular, system. This move is to be welcomed, to the extent that it allows those schools which are still focused on genuine intellectual rigour, rather than simply on finding the easiest way to pass all their pupils, to continue to uphold academic standards. However, I imagine that the majority of schools will stick with A-levels, potentially leading to a two-tier exam system in which pupils in some schools sit the (hopefully) challenging Pre-U, while others sit A-levels which are increasingly easy, and, therefore, increasingly devalued.

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