Jeremy Corbyn has warned that tough new GCSE exams introduced by the Tories will make pupils feel “devalued” and put them off education “for the rest of their lives”.
The Labour leader and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner attacked changes to the grading system and claimed some subjects such as English Literature were now being turned into memory tests.
Speaking at the party’s launch of its education policies for the general election, they said youngsters will be left feeling like “failures” thanks to the the reforms set in train by former ministers Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan.
Under the changes, pupils will no longer receive traditional A*- G grades. Instead, exams will be marked from nine to one, with nine considered a higher grade than the current A*, leaving many pupils of all abilities expecting ‘lower’ grades.
And in a major reform to the English literature GCSE, pupils this summer will no longer be allowed to take books into the exam and will have to commit to memory extracts from two novels, a play and 15 poems.
The tougher system has sparked a wave of complaints from teachers and parents and one teenager’s Facebook post on the issue went viral last month after she revealed the “ridiculous” pressure now faced by pupils.
Rayner said: “Quite frankly, there will be many students of GCSEs in September and will feel failures and it’s not their failure, it’s this government’s failure.
“I talk to businesses and they think it’s chaos. They are changing too much, it’s not evidence based.”
Corbyn added: “I absolutely endorse what Angela has just said. It’s very difficult to explain this to students, going through the trauma of starting GCSEs…knowing that the grading system has been changed and that they are going to feel a bit devalued at the end of it.
“It is a very traumatic time, think of all those students working really hard, they need to be rewarded and appreciated and supported.”
More than 110,000 people have signed a Parliamentary e-petition condemning the ‘closed book’ English GCSE, declaring “exams shouldn’t be a test on the student’s memory but how we interpret texts”.
Emma Jameson, who is taking the new exams in a few weeks, won sympathy and praise for her own Facebook post highlighting how pupils were “breaking down in class” and “crying in toilets” because of the stress.
The exam system came up as Labour outlined its new £20bn ‘National Education Service’ to halt school budget cuts, scrap fees on adult learners and reduce class sizes for under-8s.
At the event in Leeds, one young student complained that her sister was struggling with the new style exam, which requires pupils to memorise 15 poems even though only one of them will appear on the GCSE paper.
Corbyn said that turning the English exam into a memory test that could mean children are “put off poetry for the rest of their lives”.
“I can probably quote much more than 15 poems because I love poetry, but the idea that you would a young person into an exam having to remember 15 poems on the basis that one of them might show up on the exam paper, it’s going to put them off poetry for the rest of their lives.
“That is not what we want to achieve. I want people to love poetry, be inspired by it, not put off it.
“I want people to love learning, not be concerned by it. Because we all learn all of our lives, that’s what Angela is proposing. Life long learning, cradle to grave. You never stop being a student.”
Corbyn then advised those struggling with the new system to “take up poetry after the exams”, with some alternatives to the Victorian works many students currently have to study. “Try John Cooper Clarke [the punk poet] or John Lennon [the Beatles star], alright?”
Rayner added: “All I would say in terms of the poetry question, what was loaded in that question for me and what’s really devastating about what the government have done with our curriculum is they’ve choked out a love of learning.
“That’s what today was about for me, it’s about bringing back that passion of life-long learning. About enjoying it. I didn’t enjoy school, I felt education was something that was done to me, whereas when I got older, I appreciate, I love finding out new facts now.”
Rayner also hinted that Labour would reform the system to end the shift under Michael Gove of teaching solely for tests.
“If all we do is feed children for a test, we really don’t get the best out of people and you don’t get that love of learning and that lifelong learning approach. So we will do things differently, so watch out for our manifesto.”
Supporters of the new grading system say that it provides universities with a much better guide to the abilities of pupils, particularly high achievers, as more children got A* results in recent years.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: “It’s a shame to hear Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner talking down these exams which will equip our children with the knowledge and skills they need to compete with the brightest and best from around the world.
“Ensuring our young people leave school ready for work is the responsible thing to for them, for their future employers, for our economy and for our country.
“Putting Jeremy Corbyn in charge of our education system risks a return to the bad old days of grade inflation, too many children leaving school without basic skills, and plummeting down international league tables which we saw under the last Labour government.”
He also said that “passing the new English Literature GCSE does not require pupils to memorise vast amounts of texts” and claimed that “our reformed GCSEs will provide all pupils with the qualifications they need to progress to further education and employment”.