Belfast Telegraph

Uniform system needed to fulfil unique potential

Half of secondary students failed to get a GCSE grade 'C' in English or Maths. But a radical new benchmarking system could tackle numeracy and literacy issues, says Michele Marken

Our children should matter. This may seem a self-evident way to preface an article about what should be regarded as our most valuable and precious human assets - our young people.

Yet the current climate of adverse public comment arising from the recent riots in England has created such a sandstorm of negative emotion that we are challenged to remember the basic decency and clear-sightedness which most of our children seem to retain in the face of the many disdainful comments our media give voice to every day.

While the majority of pupils will have worked hard and honestly, public comment on this year's GCSE results has predictably followed the same, tired pattern.

Though Northern Ireland schools have been lauded for maintaining high percentages of A* grades and A*-C in seven subjects (grammar schools) or five subjects (other post-primary schools), few commentators have analysed the worth of all the other grades gained.

We can be certain that any GCSE in an 'ology' will be dismissed as not worth the effort put in to attaining it, while the collective efforts of the majority of pupils gaining seven or eight GCSE grades below the coveted 'C' will be seen as nothing in the eyes of many.

While no one can ignore that adequate levels of literacy and numeracy are essential for an effective workforce, too many people in influential places fail to unpick the glib statistics used as bench-marks.

GCSE English at Grade 'D' was regarded as the grade expected to be attained by the 'average' 16-year-old when GCE and CSE were amalgamated.

Yet today, the many pupils gaining this grade will feel undervalued and will be defined as failures by those who should know better - including some of our main employers.

The only way to settle this circular argument is for the Government to establish standardised national tests of literacy and numeracy which match the requirements of the workplace and which must be taken by all students at the end of Key Stage 4, in addition to GCSE mathematics and English.

This will establish a clear baseline, improve standards and reduce, or remove, the constant arguments about exit-level literacy and numeracy attainment in our schools. Presently we are asking one examination to serve two purposes - or, indeed, two masters. This recommendation was made in a cross-sectoral education advisory panel report produced for a cross-party group of MLAs and presented to the Assembly education committee last January.

It begs the question of why we continue to ask students to engage in 'vocational' GCSE's (such as Information Technology and Technology and Design) if the very sector we wish to guide these young people towards - manufacturing and construction - is struggling to cope with a changed landscape.

On the one hand, we are told schools must turn out students ready-prepared to slip seamlessly into the world of work; critical thinking, good decision-making and other crucial skills so highly-developed that employers will have effective employees from day one.

On the other hand, we must listen to critics who wish to return us to the dark ages of rote-learning and authoritarian control where there is no room for such crucial skills and only the familiar, solid core of traditional subjects will offer a path to success.

If we deny young people the opportunity to develop their creative and entrepreneurial talents - the very qualities which might just contribute to a new way of shaping how we earn a living and help us climb out of recession - we deny the next generation its right to a life worthy to be lived well.

In the words of one teacher who spent yesterday advising students about 'next steps' and 'pathways', "Employers are in disarray, they cannot take on apprentices while struggling to prevent their industry from falling apart."

There may be various apprenticeship schemes on offer by the Department of Employment and Learning, but the acid-test is work-placement and in the current climate much work experience is 'virtual' - provided in situ by training organisations.

There is one certainty at the core of this confused and contradictory educational scene - the ability of young people to persevere, to believe in themselves if given the right support. There are many routes to achieving goals in life.

More than 100 proud, successful graduands of the University of Ulster 'Step-Up to Science' collaboration with secondary schools offering double-award science A-level walked across the stage in Jordanstown last Friday to receive their scrolls, watched by a huge audience of proud parents. I saw one girl whose route to success was via a post-16 NVQ qualification which gave entry to the double-award science A-level. She is on her way to university, the first in her family. For her, this is the dream realised.

Our responsibility now is to understand that all the GCSE students have that same right to dream, that none should be written-off and publicly diminished by careless sound-bite statements.

Crucially, if those of us who have made our way up the ladder don't remember our journey, we will have little compassion for the raw emotions of the class of 2011.

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