Thoreau Quote

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Henry David Thoreau

Monday, 5 December 2011

What are these bloomin' GCSEs for??!!

I've been very lax at posting - over a month since my last. I've just been busy really, plus I decided from the start that I would only post when I had something to say. I'd rather this blog risked being a little sparse but was genuine rather than filling it with somewhat forced writings.

One of the reasons I've been busy is that B, who is approaching 16 years of age, is studying for GCSEs*. She's home educated so this is anything but straight forward! As those of you who are home educators know, we are on our own, financially and practically, and this includes taking exams. And it is very time consuming to research the whole process and work out exactly what we have to do. And that's all before doing any of the studying!

It really is a minefield, but, largely thanks to the support of other home educators on the HE Exams list, we found our way through. B passed two GCSEs last year, in Biology and Psychology. Yay!!

When it came to the studying we found ourselves presented with a different set of frustrations. Those of realising that learning and education are one thing, but passing exams is an entirely different matter, more related to how many facts you can hold in your memory and your ability to regurgitate those facts in the precise manner that the examiner wants to see.

B has found this very annoying. She enjoyed her subjects last year and learned much from studying them. She still refers to them in the course of everyday life, whether it's because a hospital drama on TV mentions the structure of the heart, or our pets display some amusing Pavlovian conditioning. In terms of broadening her education it was a success.

But the educational bit didn't take that long. The majority of the time was spent committing as many of the facts as possible to memory and going through past papers trying to work out how to answer them to maximise marks. It seemed such a waste of time and threatened to ruin her enjoyment of the subjects.

And here we are, doing it all over again, this time with English Language, English Literature and History. Sigh. Me trying to make sure she has every opportunity to learn the subjects thoroughly and still enjoy them, her trying not to get frustrated at the knowledge that, while learning all about Martin Luther King is fascinating and well worth her time, the effort required in practicing answering questions in just the right way is not so much. Oh, and no putting your own spin on anything either. Just the standard answers required please :(

But hey, maybe that's a lesson in itself. Sometimes you just have to buckle down and conform. Sometimes you just have to listen to 'the man'.

Or do you? Is it really necessary to have a clutch of GCSEs to be a success? Well, of course not. There are plenty of people, home educated and otherwise, that are making their way in the world without such restrictive qualifications. People with drive, ambition and talent are forging different paths. And I applaud them.

I know of quite a few home educated students that have gained places at college despite not holding the required number of GCSE passes, my own son being one of them, but this can depend on what you choose to study, how flexible the tutor is and what else you have to offer as proof of your abilities and commitment.

Unfortunately for her, B does not have a specific ambition right now. No particular interest she wants to pursue. She just doesn't know. Which is absolutely fine, there are a lot of us like that :) So, we've decided the thing to do is keep her options open. Realistically for us there is a choice of one college, and there are no guarantees that if she does decide to apply there they will be flexible about entrance requirements, so given that she is quite an academic person a few GCSEs can't do any harm. So we're back where we started, trying not to get too annoyed!!

But at least we know the score. At least, even in this, she has that element of choice. She knows what GCSEs are about, that they're not necessarily the only reflection of knowledge or skill, but that they can be useful keys to open doors. She's not on the conveyor belt of 10 GCSEs 'just because', with no analysis of the whys and wherefores, and that huge pressure of feeling that if you don't succeed then your future looks dim.
So, we may be in the midst of all this for a while yet, but I hope that even in choosing a conventional path for now, our unconventional home educating life helps us see the broader picture in which it fits.

*Actually, because of coursework and, more recently, controlled assessment elements, standard GCSEs as taken in schools are incredibly difficult to arrange as a private candidate. So home educators normally do IGCSEs (International GCSEs) instead, since they usually have 100% exam route to qualification. But more about all that another time maybe!


  1. I'm dead sure your home educating path will help you see the bigger picture while you do the conventional necessaries Jane! If only because you all understand that passing GCSEs and being educated are perhaps two different things! :)Good luck! x

  2. Hi Jane,
    Thank you for this post. We're not at the exam stage with our daughter but it's always really helpful to hear about others experiences - so thanks again.

  3. Thanks Ross and Wendy

    Wendy, on rereading my post it sounds a bit negative, which is not the impression I wanted to give really. I am just feeling annoyed at the whole 'churn out the knowledge' culture at the moment :)

    Now we've slotted them into the big picture, I think we can view them as just one path to the future and one that happens to suit B at the moment. There are lots of other approaches to take instead, or even aswell.

    When you do start to think about exams, do join the Yahoo group I mention in the post. An invaluable collection of experienced and helpful people!


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