For (doing) goodness’ sake, please rethink GCSEs!

How a flexible, local curriculum and interdisciplinary learning could raise academic results, improve society and help young people

Issy Activist & student at Bohunt Sixth Form

Phil Avery Direction of Education, Bohunt Education Trust

After seven years of secondary education I have learnt a lot. For example, I can analyse a poem and I know what photosynthesis is. However, only from my two years at Bohunt Sixth Form have I learnt to apply my learning to the real world. I have been wondering how different I would be if societal issues, set free from written exams, had been addressed in lower years. Throughout my education I have been measured solely through exams; though effective academically, their focus is narrow and on the curriculum alone. I believe school should be about introducing students to the world, and to a certain extent it does. It introduces career paths and methods of analysis, but I feel the focus on academia within education is too limited for the modern social landscape.

Over the last two years at Sixth Form I have been expected to read widely around my subjects; the impacts of global relations, how poverty affects hazard responses and the unconscious bias against women within language. These examples let me apply what I learnt in the classroom to the real world, giving me a well-rounded understanding of my subject AND the world around me. The process of completing the reading in my free time has broadened my interests, making me want to learn and create change. I now view myself as an activist and use my position within college, my conversations with friends and family, and my social media to advocate for positive change. This is who I have become over the course of two years; I am a very different person compared to myself at age 16.

During GCSEs, my focus was on nine subjects and, due to the prescribed content being much greater than at A-level, it is understandable why learning about societal issues was difficult. Why is greater importance put on academic learning compared to world problems? Are younger students seen as too young?

Not engaging in big ideas could lead us to become close-minded. This seems prevalent in areas of privilege. Yes, an individual can empathise with those less affluent than them, but in order to fully support others, they must understand the issue from another perspective. A study conducted by The Independent(1) found that one in five men don’t believe that gender equality exists; similarly, many white people say they do not see colour. In a position of privilege it is easy to overlook the severity of an issue as you are not affected personally. I believe introducing wider issues from a younger age would encourage a sense of community – not just at a local or national scale, but globally.

Many may argue that teaching children non-examined content is ineffective. I remember PSHE lessons, learning about sex and drugs. Though vital, it felt inferior to other subjects, sometimes lacking organisation or engaging methods of teaching. The first step would be to raise the importance of these lessons with staff and students. The second would be to invest time (and money) into ensuring these lessons are engaging and encourage change.

However, the phrase, ‘you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ comes to mind. Secondary school stigmas, associated with certain topics or subjects, reduce students’ ability to engage and enjoy subjects. Pressures within a secondary school are influential, as I know from my own experiences, and do have an impact on what is deemed ‘cool’. This is a challenge. No matter how much time is invested into improving exposure to world issues, the child must have motivation to learn. Therefore, it must be adapted to be accessible and appropriate to younger audiences; a teacher would not use identical teaching methods with a Year Seven class and a Year Thirteen class. Thus, the broad issues that are entwined within society, need to be adjusted to fit the needs of those being taught.

You may be asking yourself how this would be integrated into the school environment effectively. It could be addressed in a separate lesson and taught in isolation. However, being able to intertwine curriculum topics, would lead to wider engagement and deeper understanding. Synthesizing information is a skill encouraged in subjects such as English and A-Level Geography; marks are given for connecting more than one topic together and understanding their links. Shouldn’t this skill be encouraged when considering any societal issues? Society is an interlinked concept, therefore, when teaching it, shouldn’t it be in tandem with exam specifications? Better understanding of the world and better exam grades would follow.

I believe being able to engage in society’s issues should not be exclusive to older years. I believe in order to create habits and expectations, it should be implemented tactically into younger education. This will form an aware, interested younger generation increasing the amount of activists and therefore improving the chances of solving societal issues. Being empathetic is a skill that can be learnt through learning. I believe education is responsible for preparing young people socially as well as academically. Both need to exist simultaneously to enhance and improve empathic perspectives.

(1) Charley Ross, 10/11/2020, One in Five Men Don’t Believe Gender Inequality is a Reality, The Independent, 16/05/2021,

Response – Phil Avery, Director of Education at Bohunt Education Trust

Issy’s challenge to us as educators is to support, at all ages, the development of what is important, not simply what is easy to measure. To teach ‘hope’ and ‘purpose’, rather than just subject domain knowledge, concepts and skills. To ensure assessment methods support breadth and depth of development, rather than constrain. To allow students to explore identities, rather than defining them. We need to make space in our subject dominated curriculum for interdisciplinary learning, social/environmental action, a focus on dispositions and authentic assignments.

What should give us the motivation to do this is Issy’s view that this is not a zero-sum game. She is clear the authentic learning and her development as an activist has fuelled her intrinsic motivation, improved her critical analysis and built her self-confidence. In short, it has impacted positively on her academic studies. We have seen the same with our immersion language programme; students taught a third of their timetable in Mandarin, French or Spanish do better in all subjects due to the level of challenge and motivation that derives from the authentic learning experience.

By making space for rich, real-world, interdisciplinary learning, by using multi-modal assessment and by giving students agency we will give ourselves the best chance of not only raising academic results, but also sustainably developing our communities and environment. For this reason, Bohunt has introduced a Trust-wide Citizenship curriculum featuring social action, built the John Muir (conservation) Award into the work of its outdoor classrooms and is developing interdisciplinary projects focused on migration and climate change in conjunction with universities.

Issy’s piece finishes with a powerful plea for education to move from the myopic, from the distillation of a student down to a progress number or string of numbers/letters. As an alternative image she paints schools as places that orientate their students to look outwards, encouraging them to understand others, give themselves in service and think global, not personal. That message seems fit for educators as well as the students they serve.

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