A question of qualifications

What to do about GCSE? This is a question we have been considering with our eldest son, who is now 14. It is an issue for home educated young people, and there are different approaches to gaining qualifications. It is certainly true that there are many roads to the same end point, and home educating families discover some different routes. Some bypass GCSE completely and skip on to higher level qualifications, even talking their way into University through the back door - with a great portfolio and the gift of the gab! Others begin GCSE studies early, spreading the exams over a number of years, relieving some of the pressure. Many look at where a child wants to go, and then work backwards. So, to get on to that college course, I need x number of GCSEs. Or, to do A-Levels there, I need to do x. This seems to me quite sensible, especially as home educators have to foot the cost of exams themselves. It is perfectly possible to study for exams independently and then arrange to sit them as an external candidate at a co-operative school or exam centre. Another route would be to go to college part-time, or to join an evening course.

All these options have been considered and discussed with independent son no 1. His idea was that he doesn't need GCSEs and, whilst I can see his point (GCSEs are actually not the be-all and end-all, and there are plenty of vocational routes into employment), I cannot get away from the fact that I would feel I was failing and handicapping him by not enabling him to get these magical bits of paper which are seen to open doors in the wider world out there. I cannot get away from the feeling that such qualifications give you options. However much I resist the idea of education being all about tests and grades, this is the language that the world speaks. And son no 1 is bright and very able. I cannot sit on my own pile of GCSE, A-Level and degree certificates and tell him they are not worth having. I do not want to limit his opportunity in the world out there. So in response to his, "I don't need any GCSEs", I'm afraid my response is that they are a rather inconvenient necessity. I feel a hypocrite insisting on it. It seems to go against everything our educational philosophy has become to say, yes, in the end, it comes down to this set of tests. Having kept him outside the educational box, it seems unfair for me to insist on pushing him back into it.

We discussed the best way for him to tackle the gaining of qualifications. He has friends in school, and friends who are studying for qualifications outside of school. After some consideration, he told me he would be better to go in to school to do GCSEs. "That is what schools do," he said. "That is what they are good at." He feels he will be more motivated in school. "Home ed is not about that," he said. "if I am at home, I just want to be free to do all my own projects. If I have to do qualifications, I am better off doing them in school." For all my reservations, I kind of like the fact that he sees school as a means to an end; he can access school as an autonomous individual, knowing that he is there for a purpose with an end-goal in mind. He is choosing to be there.

Accordingly, in the autumn we went to look at a local engineering technical college, which intakes at ages 14 and 16, and has strong links both with our local University and with industry, and applied for a place. As his main interest is still cars and engineering, this seems a fitting choice, and it is practically on our doorstep. By entering now, he is in no way behind or disadvantaged in his application as there are no entry qualifications prior to GCSE. This week, pending an interview, we received the letter informing us he has been offered a place.

He seems positive about it. He has a few friends who are already there or who will join the same cohort. I am hopeful that the freedoms he has enjoyed will have set him in good stead to go on and shine, but I am worried, too, that his quirky eccentricity will make it too difficult for him to fit in. In his favour is a competitive streak that I hope will drive him to want to do well.  I do believe at 14, boys are ready to have mentors other than Mum & Dad, and whilst he does have many great relationships with people at his clubs and at church, I think it will be good for him to be able to learn from others who share his interests. And it will be good for me to be able to focus on the other boys without having to get my head around tackling GCSEs just yet. So as another foray into school looms large, we shall see, hey? We shall see ....