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It’s time to abolish GCSEs The exam is a block to advanced learning

This scene should be a thing of the past. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

This scene should be a thing of the past. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


May 16, 2022   5 mins

And they’re off. A thunder of feet outside the sports hall, a shuffling to desks, then breathing, sniffing and the squeak of the invigilator’s trainers; after a two year break, GCSE season has re-opened. England’s 16-year-olds may turn over and begin.

The pens are new in the transparent pencil cases; the pencils sharp. They won’t stay that way. Many students will endure 30 hours of exams, spread over six weeks, all the way through the hay fever season, into flaming June. The pressure is tangible. The scribbling students have been harangued about these exams since Year 7. Or maybe even before then, when they toured the local secondary schools with their parents, for GCSEs are the public measure of schools. For state schools in particular, they are still the most important part of their reputation.

Since then, there have been many assemblies, reams of mock exams, and much money spent: an average school will have paid the examination boards about as much as a senior teacher’s salary just to get the papers marked. If their school is going through a process of improvement, there may have been even more: summer schools, bribes, gimmicks, posters in corridors, school heroes and villains. At the end of all this there will be results and tears and league tables. Parents will look at those as they chose a school, and then the whole cycle will start again.

But what will the pupils themselves get out of it? There will be learning, of course, in this intense communal effort and focus. But there will be considerable narrowing too. Many academy chains, despite the campaigning of Ofsted, still prefer to have students pick their GCSEs in Year 8, when they are 12 or 13, all the better to double down and narrow in. Within these subjects, new learning will have stopped last Christmas: since then, it’s all been revision. Despite all this, nearly a fifth of the students in the room will come away with Grade 4s, the lowest pass possible. Around 10% of them will get a 1 or 2, and they probably know it. Someone in the building will probably crack under all this: our exam system is surely one reason 15-year-olds have such poor mental health. 

Afterwards, there will be proms, hugs, shirt-signing, tears: the rites of passage of leaving. But they aren’t leaving. All of them, by law, are supposed to stay in education or training till they are 18. So what were the GCSEs for? Mostly, 16-year-olds are too busy to ask. Even the luckiest third, the ones who have taken the whole course at a decent canter, hopped over all the jumps with the minimum upset (good health and a supportive, consistent home are a vast help at GCSE), have no resits to do, a decent hand of 7-9s in a range of subjects, an eye on university and a place in their own school sixth form, are preoccupied. They have to choose their A Levels.

Another narrowing, a sudden one: from 11 limited subjects to 3 in academic depth. Here is a loss even for the most academic students: they must prefer sciences over arts, drop humanities or languages, decisions which affect their entire lives. And nothing to be done about it because in England there is no longer an intermediate Higher or AS level.

The student with 6 and 7s across the board, able in most things but specialising in none, good in school but not studying much at home, needs that intermediate level even more. None of the narrow, difficult A levels may really be for him; and there is no leeway to experiment. Disproportionately, such students come from non-middle-class homes. Annually, they make choices which sound practical but which will disadvantage them later: Law over French, Media Studies over History.

Once chosen, many will find the A Level a leap. GCSE is an end point, it acts as a block to advanced learning. In languages, for example, teachers are under pressure to skip out blocks of grammar: the emphasis is on vocabulary; a pass can be had without it. English GCSE may be passed without independent reading of long texts, Biology without much Maths. But A Level will ask for skills in all these things, and established habits of study and a place to work too. Long hours of paid work and commutes take a toll on all that: it’s not surprising that the drop-out rate among disadvantaged students is nearly 15%. Nationally, fewer than half of our students end up with 2 A Levels.

None of this is anything, though, to the sufferings of that failing 35%. They will enter the underfunded, undervalued and confusing world of English vocational learning, often at a lower academic level than they have already attained. The courses available are truncated by the insistence of GCSE at 16. There are very many — EAL learners, disadvantaged students — who simply need a little more time to succeed at GCSE level. But a three-year course, say, in Electrical Engineering, with Higher Maths and GCSE English, all assessed in a single baccalaureate at 18, does not exist in England.

There are options like that in Germany. Across Europe, 16-year-olds are mostly a year or more into such courses, vocational or academic. Finns manage to move from school to technical or academic colleges at 16 on a minimal set of teacher assessments and standardised computer tests, and yet emerge much higher up the PISA rankings: better educated at nearly every level. Even the French, surely as obsessed with hierarchical education and competitive exams as any nation could be, only examine once, at 18. No other country sets a vast bank of exams two years before leaving school.

But other countries in Europe don’t wear acrylic blazers to school, either. The GCSE shares a mythic root. Once there were O Levels and CSEs, and grammar schools and secondary moderns, and gyms with wooden floors and hymns in assembly, and this, against all historical evidence, believe the Tory Party, the Daily Mail and my granny, was Better.

Though the Tories abolished the O Level, in fact. It went in 1987, just before Kenneth Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill, or Gerbil. GCSE joined up O Level and CSE: a qualification for everyone. Unfortunately, its invention coincided with those of the excel sheet, the internet, and the Gerbil’s worst innovation: competition between schools as policy. By 2013, a school’s pass rate at GCSE was being surveyed in a thousand public data sets and, inevitably, monstrously gamed. Coursework elements meanwhile were being destroyed by internet plagiarism, and the AS Level had been invented, turning the final three years of school into a maze of elaborate examinations. It would have been a fine moment to abolish the GCSEs and tackle the problem of vocational education. Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, had the ambition and drive to do it.

But Gove was also, and more profoundly, a populist. Instead, of abolition, he tried to make the GCSE as much like an O Level as possible, abolishing coursework, doubling down on handwriting and rote learning, and entrenching failure by introducing grading by proportion. Gavin Williamson had another excellent chance at major reform during the pandemic; sadly, he was far too dim. Nadim Zahawi is much cleverer, but his White Paper indicates little interest.

Why would it, and why would he? GCSE is such an entrenched part of school experience that people inside schools and out accept it like the weather. Deep reform of the sky will never be as popular as selling umbrellas. It would take a truly radical, dedicated politician to push it forward, and we’re short of those. It would help though, if the electorate could even think about a world without GCSE. Dear reader, can we start there? 


Kate Clanchy is a poet, author, and teacher. Some Kids I taught and What They Taught Me is available now from Swift Press.

KateClanchy1

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polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

“Someone in the building will probably crack under all this: our exam system is surely one reason 15-year-olds have such poor mental health.”
I had to sit 11plus, O level and then A level. I don’t recall teenagers having such poor mental health. We were a pretty normal collection of kids, sometimes bored, sometimes excited, sometimes worried about spots, sometimes yearning after that gorgeous girl in the upper 6th – Talk about unobtainable.
Perhaps adults are visiting their own neurosis on the kids. Because I remember kids being pretty resilient. Perhaps if we stop telling them that they are destroying the planet merely by existing, and that they are almost certainly in the wrong body, they might get back to enjoying their youth with all its ups and downs – Yeah even the exams. In short – leave them alone.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

It’s not just parents; teachers are concerned about results and they push the kids so much that often the children do succumb to stress. Like you I had to take 11+ and a number of public exams (one more than you as I did my final shool years in Oz where they have, I don’t know if they still do, 3 public exams starting at 15).

We weren’t even told that we were doing the 11+ – papers were handed out and we were told that we had a set time to do the tests, papers were collected and we heard no more about it until four of us were told that the headmaster wanted to see us, we were terrified about what we might have done to be called to see the HM. So, no time to worry about that exam, of course for later exams we did know what we were doing, and there was some self-induced stress, but as far as I know we weren’t all having mental collapses.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

I was also blissfully unaware

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Nor were the ‘privileged few’ who, with the exception of Winchester, only had Common Entrance to deal with.
However there was the added excitement of dealing with or avoiding Flashman like characters, plus numerous botty bandits and paedos, to lapse into the vernacular.
The late Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘IF’is a good evocation if you haven’t already seen it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Seen it many times. Good reference. Speaking of Flash; do you remember Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns”? I always thought the character, “School Bully”, was obviously inspired by old Flashy.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Yes I thought it was Michael Palin at his very best, and agree that ‘Flashy’ must have been the inspiration.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

That’s a good point Polidori, surely the 11+ was much more stressful than the current system yet mental health was apparently better.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I know, I know, we went through it, so why shouldn’t they! But what the hell is the point, for the vast majority of kids?

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago

I don’t like GCSEs either but would anybody like to suggest a better system? Continual assessment is far too susceptible to cheating; giving everyone a leaver’s certificate would devalue actual achievement and therefore lower standards; abandoning assessment would allow breath of learning, but it would take an astonishing level of naivety to believe that most students would actually engage with that learning.

It’s actually really difficult to assess fairly the knowledge and abilities of hundreds of thousands of students without some sort of standardised, externally marked assessment. Check the grade inflation in 2020 and 2021 to see what happens when teachers assess their own pupils.

It isn’t true to say that exams play no part in educating students – they provide motivation and structure for the majority. Are they perfect? Very far from it. Are they better than the alternatives? Maybe.

The author seems to think at one point that AS qualifications were a good thing, but then bemoans the extra exams they necessitated. We can’t have it both ways: it’s clearly important that real learning and development happens, but without some sort of exam, how is anyone to know that it has?

Last edited 2 years ago by Bob Bobbington
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

I taught in this system for 40 yrs in secondaries. Believe me Kate is right. We don’t need a better system at 16. It serves very little purpose and the effects are destructive! We have to stop thinking our way is more rigorous than those continentals. Sadly it’s cultural. No other country has such a dead hand on the system as powerful British public schools though many actually see the lack of stretch for able students. What is the whole thing actually for? Surely parity of esteem for vocational education for starters- try getting a politics grad to sort your wiring out. But that’s the point- it’s a false dichotomy between absurd stereotypes-academic ( clever, superior) and vocational ( thickos, good with their hands). It has to go.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

“…it’s clearly important that real learning and development happens, but without some sort of exam, how is anyone to know that is has?”
Might i suggest that “real learning” takes place when an individual is (for whatever reason) motivated to acquire knowledge, or insight. Factory farming children to pass exams is not the way to do this, although ‘some’ learning might happen along the way.
I reckon i’ve forgotten at least 90% of what passed my way in the classroom over a period of 14 years. As an example, i was ‘taught’ French to GCE standard (that gives a clue to my age!) for five whole wearisome years. I achieved a pass, but no learning took place of any meaningful kind, and it was all forgotten within a decade; during which time, i took it upon myself to read and research a thousand other things of actual interest. That is when learning takes place!

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Murray
Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That’s all fair comment, but it doesn’t answer the question of how, without some sort of objective assessment, anyone knows whether the kids have actually learned anything after 5 years. Trusting that they ‘just will’ is, I’m sorry to say, naĂŻve. It also doesn’t give the students anything to show what they’ve learned.

Objective assessments are notoriously difficult to design if the aim is to measure genuine understanding and appreciation rather than basic knowledge and box ticking. However, that difficulty doesn’t mean there’s anything better, and teacher assessment certainly is far worse.

I’ve taught, and marked exams, and worked at a reasonably high level in an exam board, and the sad truth is that perhaps the greatest limiting factor in designing exam courses is how far a bunch of teachers (maybe up to 250 of them) could be expected to mark consistently the course content. The answer is – not very far if that content is at all challenging or subjective.

If you’ve taught in a school, you will also know the other sad truth that most (not all) kids are not simply motivated to learn without some external stimulus. Many schools have tried teaching non-examined courses for the pure joy of learning, and many of those courses cover fascinating topics and are no doubt delivered by enthusiastic teachers. They do not find, on the whole, kids lapping it all up with wonder.

Sorry to sound so cynical! There may well be ways around this if we can apply AI technology to the learning and assessment process, and that could be a huge step forward in terms of personalised learning and academic freedom.

Having said all that, I agree completely that vocational qualifications can be at least as valuable as GCSEs and A Levels. Or they could be… some of them are a joke.

Also agree that most of what is learned at school is forgotten, at least it won’t be at the forefront of one’s mind 20 years later; then again, neither will the stuff you read about independently if you don’t think about it for 20 years! The key is to keep learning throughout life.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

Perhaps i’m prejudiced in that i found passing (academic) exams so damned easy; facile, actually! I’m not in favour of their abolition; rather, a recognition of what they represent – which isn’t learning but something less valuable. Is that naive? I doubt it.

Tommy Fisher
Tommy Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

An alternative – International Baccalaureate (although they also have exams). Not necessarily better but a definite alternative. Playing devils advocate: many people ‘cram’ for an exam and they pass but how many retain that knowledge post exam or more importantly understand the concepts etc? Perhaps a final year of performance tasks where students actively show their understanding during set tasks and scenarios (with rubric) creating written, verbal and recorded evidence of these tests as a final (edited) presentation might be more effective.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

But other countries in Europe don’t wear acrylic blazers to school, either. The GCSE shares a mythic root. Once there were O Levels and CSEs, and grammar schools and secondary moderns, and gyms with wooden floors and hymns in assembly, and this, against all historical evidence, believe the Tory Party, the Daily Mail and my granny, was Better.

I’m with your granny on this.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

My grandkids are growing up in Finland. I couldn’t be more delighted. What you actually mean is that schools should be a mirror of a culture. Finns don’t need all this despite being far more obviously patriotic than Brits.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I’m not sure what you are getting at Terence.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

You could make a reasonable argument that the purpose of schools has changed. Once upon a time their purpose was to educate children, now children are merely the feedstock for the education industry to process.
Just as patients are merely the feedstock for the health industry to process.
I detect a theme… and changing the measures of process success misses the need to change the aims of the industry(ies).

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I’m not sure. At the lower quality end of the scale mass education has always been about the feedstock approach since Forster’s Education Act in 1870.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

This article is against GCSE’s. Its partisan. Maybe, the author is right. But maybe wrong. To start being convincing, she’d have to put the case for, and against. Maybe this would be boring. But as it is, why read it?
What does sound absolutely correct is this statement:They will enter the underfunded, undervalued and confusing world of English vocational learning, often at a lower academic level than they have already attained.” Why is vocational learning underfunded? In fact, why is not vocational learning there in differing degrees for everyone. Learning carpentry is a skill, which requires intelligence. So does painting, music; plumbing; animal husbandry, the many fields of electronics.
Can we get rid of this stoopid hostility to practical skills, please. There are multiple forms of intelligence. Developing multiplke forms of intelligence should be what education is about.

Patrick Taylor
Patrick Taylor
2 years ago

Exams might be important for assessing students, and institutions, but they play no part in actually educating students

You don’t fatten a pig simply by weighing it

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Taylor

True, but you know when to turn it into bacon.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Taylor

Fortunately we think a bit more than pigs, well most of us! The mere presence of the bathroom scale (and mirror) causes the wife and I to consume only a quarter of the bag of chips in one sitting, as opposed to the whole thing.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Taylor

They play a more important part in assessing teachers, which, presumably, is why the teaching unions always oppose them.

Toby Frith
Toby Frith
2 years ago

We like exams in this country pure and simple. They’re not perfect and have their own issues, like any system.
The school I teach in has significant issues with Year 12 students because of CAGs in 2021. Numerous students who were clearly not suitable for academia and would have struggled to get a decent grade normally were allowed in. They are struggling at A-Level and causing behaviour issues because of this. The ripple-down effect of this is being witnessed at all other levels.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

There is a need for a school leaving certificate. There is also some need to allow universities some means of selecting students.

O levels were school leaving certificates but as (foolishly in my view) children are stuck I education until 18, they have become almost redundant.

I suggest there is some value in some standard tests in mathematics and English which students can attempt from the age of 14 or so, just to show that they have the basic skills. Other than that, it seems most a waste of time.

During COVID I didn’t understand why they simply didn’t abandon GCSEs and find ways of running the A levels, which for those doing were of career significance.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

I was a teacher highly involved in various UK16+exams over 40 yrs. A few thoughts: 1. Other countries don’t have this ‘school leaver’concept at 16. They do have ways of identifying veey high achievers at 18. Only a very tiny number of Finns get highest marks at 18. 2. Any system can be gamed. English GCSE for example is absurdly formulaic ‘to be fair’. This means questions follow absurd ‘assessment objctives’ to the letter with responses marked in bands. It’s not either a literacy test or a test of wide reading or originality. Stupid. 3. The school is marked by results. Pupils know this. It doesn’t feel like it’s for them. Teachers cut corners to get grades. After all that’s how their own worth is assessed. It’s natural. Teachers end up working harder than the students. 4. By all means have numeracy and literacy assessments to help students. 5. High inflated GCSE grades lead too many kids to do A Levels ( all must have prizes,). When an A Level student mutters they don’t really like reading? Schools ger money for post 16 bums on seats- this is not in the best interest of many kids. Scrap them. They’re destructive and expensive.

Ken Pollock
Ken Pollock
2 years ago

Amid the extended arguments presented is the bald statement that no-one leaves school before the age of 18. This is wrong. Many leave school without going into the 6th form or equivalent. These young people need an objective assessment of their knowledge and GCSEs seek to present that – to any prospective employer for instance.
If the author is labouring under this misconception, much of the rest of the argument fails totally.

John Findlay
John Findlay
2 years ago

entrenching failure by introducing grading by proportion.

Well, ‘grade inflation’ was introduced by the switch many years ago from what was called norm referencing to criterion referencing. Norm referencing means the top 10% or so get an A, the next 20% get a B, etc. Criterion referencing means that a mark of 70% gets an A, 60 % gets a B etc. The problem is that exam boards in England are in competition, as are schools, and more ‘A’s at GCSE = more customers for the exam board. Also the papers vary in difficulty (despite the best efforts of the setters, and there are only a handful of boards), whereas there are potentially tens of thousands of candidates from whose performance one can draw meaningful statistics. Boards had to introduce A* at A-level as too many candidates were getting grade A, and the universities couldn’t tell the huge numbers of qualified candidates apart. Norm referencing eliminates that problem if the boundaries are sensibly set, and prevents exam boards competing other than on the quality of their papers and administration.
There will always be candidates who don’t make the grade, and the education system is partly about the pupils finding out what they’re good at and what they’re rubbish at. I discovered in my final year at school that I wasn’t as good at Mathematics as I’d thought I was. The sooner a young person learns about their strengths and weaknesses the better. Failing an exam in a subject you weren’t too excited about isn’t a disaster, and learning to cope with events that are not a success (by external criteria) is a life lesson. Work harder and/or choose more wisely.
Disclaimer: I designed the modular A-Level candidate grade optimisation alogrithm at UCLES (now OCR) in the ’90s.
As to the main subject of this article, I’m tempted to agree, as long as they’re replaced with something more rigorous AND there’s an alternative technical/vocational stream, such as in Germany or Finland.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  John Findlay

The problem is that exam boards in England are in competition, as are schools, and more ‘A’s at GCSE = more customers for the exam board. ” This is the crux of the problem.

Sheila Dowling
Sheila Dowling
2 years ago

I live in a Canadian province where there is no standardized testing . The vast majority of students “graduate” from high school i.e. stay on until they are 18. There is no streaming or selection. At some schools everyone “graduates” with an A average. Even without the “stress” of external exams, youth mental health is atrocious.
So when do these students get tested? When they flunk out of university. Medicine, law and other professions are not first degrees in Canada.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sheila Dowling
jason whittle
jason whittle
2 years ago

Gave up on GCSEs and sent one child to Brookwood Park where they skip them entirely and just do A levels, and another to Bedales where they have replaced 5 of them including English with their own exams. Too few books in GCSE English. Every parent teacher meeting is dominated by mocks for years. All absurd. As an employer I have never seen so many unqualified twenty somethings. They have no specific skills. Three years heavily skewed to apprenticeship would be so much better for 13-15 year old.

Tommy Fisher
Tommy Fisher
2 years ago

There are many systems out there including IB, However change must come from the top. In my opinion if we want change then tertiary education needs to lead the way and this can then filter down into secondary education (and Primary school). An insistence on using one particular pedagogy ignores the benefits of others and holds back teacher innovation in the classroom. I 100% agree that formal examinations of any kind should not begin until 18 years old ( wish it was at 30 years old!). At the end of the day Education is now a business and until that changes then the current system will remain firmly in place.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

This analysis may make some good points, but what about the more radical analysis – that we enforce academic education on too many children for far too long, most of whom have little interest in it and would be better off focusing on good vocational training. A nephew of my partner was struggling with Chaucer at 14 – it is pretty much a different language for goodness’ sake!, and if we are honest the vast majority of adults have as little interest.

Hattie Simpson
Hattie Simpson
2 years ago

As someone who is 1 week into their GCSE exams I could not empathise with this article more. Not only does there appear to be a huge amount of pressure to achieve the highest grades but also to do so whilst maintaing a life outside of school – one which becomes impossible to manage the moment revision begins. Just looking around my year group it is clear to see the extreme stress that we all feel we are under, with more and more people struggling with anxiety associated with exams than ever before. Despite small changes being made this year to accomodate missing education due to the pandemic it is very much a shared feeling that it is not enough – I am incredibly privileged in the level of education that I received during the pandemic, but, considering that these students whose lessons pretty much continued like normal despite the move online are struggling, it is no question that there are greater issues across the country. Though many exam boards are publishing advanced information we seem to frequently find ourselves walking into exams to find questions on topics that weren’t included on said advanced information or questions which barely cover the topics we had been told to study in depth. Not only does there appear to be less support than ever but coupled with more stress than any of us have ever experienced before it is no surprise that so many students are crumbling under the stress. Whilst I don’t neccessarily agree with the abolition of GCSEs, I certaintly believe that measures should be taken to ensure that they better represent students abilities without the cost of their mental health.

Last edited 2 years ago by Hattie Simpson
Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

Instead of abolishing exams, we need to retain them and have tougher exams for some. Once you get out of the education system and have to learn/pass exams for your job you will be grateful for having had to do them when younger,

Tommy Fisher
Tommy Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

This is completely untrue. As an educator who is now long out of school my GCSE exams (as exams themselves) have done absolutely nothing for me. In fact when going for Jobs I have only ever been asked about my degrees. I recruit and interview candidates and never ask about GCSE as it is completely irrelevant. Research has shown that in some private institutions where student achievement uses formative assessment and their learning is more about understanding than formulaic learning, those students actually perform better in formal exams.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Tommy Fisher

I guess you are younger than me (I did GCEs) which as you are probably aware were marked on the basis of normal distribution (something I also approve of). We do have something in common however if you are a teacher, as I have also taught (post graduates) and underwent teacher training as part of that process and also studied assessment methods as part of one of my degrees. O and A levels were both in my view a good predictor of ability. FWIW, standards appear to have dropped based on my own experience of teaching and assessing/examining students.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W