Alas, how come some public schools don’t teach their students GCSEs, and they still take exams in it

A lesson for me from a sixteen-year-old, which you may find intriguing 

I was at the intensive revision course for our A-level and GCSE students today and, during the break, I was chatting to the teenagers, as I usually do. I usually try and make small-talk and chat about their travelling experience, school and so on, including how delighted they are to be spending their Christmas holiday doing two or three days of intensive revision in Maths or Chemistry or what have you! Having such small talk is my way of making them feel at ease, but my original intention is to try and find out if they are finding the course beneficial and to see if there is any way I can help.

I asked one of the young people I was speaking to how the GCSE Maths course he is taking here compares to the one at school. His response led into a very long conversation, aspects of which shocked me and it was a learning experience. Aside from the point we were discussing, this young man was immensely confident, to put it mildly! Back to the main point – he told me that, yes, the course has allowed him to see very many gaps in his knowledge as, although he is taking GCSEs in the summer, his school does not really teach them GCSEs – at least not in Maths. They teach them something far more challenging than GCSE. It’s not IGCSE either, it’s what they call “Bozo Maths” (Bozo is a replacement for the name of the school as I’m trying to disguise it. I am being deliberately ironic as I could have used the word “whiz”)

As you probably will have guessed, it is not a state school; if it was, it would have been a national scandal and the press and the rest of the media would have called for the head teacher to be guillotined – with the teachers alongside him – at The Tower of London. The media would have called for all of them to be subjected to public execution at the Tower – just the way things were a few hundred years ago. Obviously, I’m talking metaphorically by the way – as I’m sure you’ve guessed!

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the students still get the top GCSE grades at this school. Even though they do not really teach GCSEs, and yet they do exams in them. It was a learning experience for me, despite the fact that I know one or two things about the secondary education system in Britain and I have visited this school in question a couple of times in the past. It is also the case that, although students at our intensive revision courses come from a mixture of backgrounds, including state comprehensives (most are now called academies), grammar and private schools; I was still amazed to learn this rather interesting fact.

Do public schools just spoon-feed their students and drill them to pass GCSEs – with no enjoyment of the learning process?

Contrary to the general perception that the reason why private schools do well in exams is because they spoon-feed their students, the experience of students at this school, and in some of the top public schools (the word public school in the traditional British term, refers to the very top private schools) in the country, is not quite what we hear in the press. It is well-publicised that very many private schools are exam factories, whereby all they do is to teach students how to pass exams and very little to make them enjoy the art of learning. In fact there are private schools that focus on more or less just exams and not much else but that is not the norm, but the exception.

I’m not, by any means, arguing against the practice at this school, where students are not taught the content and skills in the exams they will be taking. It is just intriguing to learn about this practice and I’m sure most parents will be shocked and think this is all rather terrible, as the students at the school spend three years not being taught what they need to know for their first major national examination – GCSE.

One may wish to argue that these young people are bright anyway, as they have to pass a tough entry examination to get into the school, so they can get away with it and achieve top grades without being taught the basics concepts and skills they need to pass their exam.

Make your own judgement and watch out!

I’ll leave it to you for form your own judgement about this practice, but what I can say is that hearing this made me think how much young people can take and their capacity to adjust and do well under a system that is not doing what would be considered to be obvious to most people – i.e. spending the vast majority of the time teaching GCSE students what they need to know for their exams.

What I have also seen is that there are other private schools in which they do not do much in terms of past exam question practice with their students. I was told this recently by a parent of one student in this type of school, this one in east London. Sadly, in this case, not doing past exam question to prepare students led to a disastrous consequence, as the young lady in question, despite being academically able, performed woefully in her GCSEs.

The two examples above indicate the complexity of the British education system, as there is so much variety in customs and practices and there is no such thing as “common practice” as such. My advice to you as a parent is to be on the look out and be very much aware of what is going on in your child’s school. Making assumptions can be very costly for the child.

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