“Well, good to see you…”

“Well, good to see you. Sorry I have to fly.”

From “We Being Ghosts” – Clive James

At the moment there is a discussion going on among British educational professionals about the need (or not) for a 16+ exam. As Year 11s are certainly aware, GCSE looms large at this time and many are formulating holiday revision timetables in preparation for the January mock examinations. On Wednesday, at their Parents’ Evening, all of the focus was on how to maximise the grade achieved. An historical perspective shows that GCSE was a replacement for the old two tier system of O levels and CSE exams. These in turn replaced The School Certificate. There is probably little need to delve back before 1951, but it is important to note that the school leaving age at that time was 16 years of age. Thus the School Certificate, O Levels and CSEs were qualifications used by employers to select candidates who were joining the workforce. Indeed GCSE has been a school leaving qualification – this only changed with the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2015. Now we assess pupils at 16 to gain some idea as to their suitability for A level study, but we probably don’t need a major exam to tell us that. I’m quite sure that most young people have a fair idea themselves as to where their talents lie. One good thing about GCSE is that it keeps options wide and pupils have to consider a range of subjects. In the British system this is the last moment at which our students are asked to be wunderkinder. That said they can remain open to all ideas once they have passed Year 11.

This week marked the passing of two great minds, two polymaths. Clive James, critic, poet and raconteur and Dr. Jonathan Miller scientist, theatre director and public intellectual. Both of these individuals gave much pleasure through their humour and have challenged via their art. I wonder if they are a fast disappearing breed. Where are they now? Who are they now? We live in an age of celebrity, sound bite and thoughts expressed in 140 characters. Newspapers warn us about articles that are “long reads” while the rest of the news is rather abbreviated. Have we lost the knack of concentrating? Both James and Miller were not afraid of delving deeper, no matter how superficial the subject. Both moved effortlessly between genres. Both had the capacity to challenge and perhaps most importantly both could be very funny indeed. In an obituary of Miller he was described as having “boundless curiosity”. Are we guilty of letting this go? He was also described as a “team player and a striking soloist.”

Exams are useful, but the longer they remain in the same form the less useful they become. The test can always be gamed. We do get better at answering the question. If a BSP education was to give a pupil two things it would for me be these: an ability to succeed in exams and a boundless curiosity. And if I had to pick one I would settle for a team player and a striking soloist. Now that’s an answer that would satisfy not one examiner but might just be a recipe for lifelong learning which is, after all, what we are meant to be fostering in a school.

Nicholas Hammond