Should we abolish GCSEs?

Posted on: 15 Sept 2015

Andrew Matthews, Deputy Head Academic at Latymer Upper School, argues against the national exams at age 16…

Those who know me also know that I have long argued that national exams at 16 are an anachronistic anomaly when children stay on to school/in education to 18. It is in general pleasing therefore to hear the growing swell of potentially influential voices (most recently, for example, Kenneth Clarke, Martin Stephen, Mike Tomlinson and Tony Little) arguing (for different reasons) for the end of GCSEs. Some argue that GCSEs are not fit for purpose: they argue, inter alia, that they fail to offer sufficient challenge for the most able, that they do not provide motivating learning for many (most?) across the ability range, that (coupled with league tables and excessive accountability) they have produced a distorted education system focused on instrumental learning and teaching to the test, that there is an unhealthy focus on key grade boundaries(C/D, A*/A), that marking is unreliable, that the qualification is devalued by inclusion of Mickie Mouse subjects, that here is an unhealthy dash for 10, 11, 12, 13 or more GCSEs etc. etc. Mr Gove has sought to meet some of these criticisms (and, he hopes, get us moving up the international league tables) by reforming GCSEs, ‘toughening them up’, abolishing coursework, focusing on ‘Ebac’ subjects and getting rid of ‘noddy’ subjects whilst still insisting that GCSE is a one size cap that can fit all.

Whilst I am a fan of rigour, intellectual challenge, mastery of academic disciplines and developing ‘deeper learning’, I think Mr Gove (and now Ms Morgan), whilst getting some things right, are also missing the point. Why do we have national and comprehensive public examinations at 16? Why do we have examinations for all at 16 irrespective of whether they are appropriate to a pupil’s progress and level of achievement (higher or lower)? Now a few schools, ourselves included, have tinkered round the edges of this twentieth century system, by introducing bespoke courses like World Perspectives, that better suit the needs of the pupils taught. And that is successful, fine and noble, but it is tinkering, even if extended to one or two other subject/discipline areas, and doesn’t alter the fundamentals. It still doesn’t get round the national, one size fits all, public examinations at 16 system.

Not all GCSEs are broken, not all are badly assessed (or assess the wrong things) – and in any case these are things that can be fixed (perhaps in the ways Gove’s reforms are seeking). And as an academic school we would want to retain an essentially academic curriculum. If we envisage (and the language is there) the idea that GCSE represents a certain level of competence (e.g. Level 2) and A- level a higher level of competence (e.g. Level 4) and that you could have courses that represented e.g. half a GCSE (i.e. still requiring level 2 competence) or half an A-level (such as Extended Project) we could break the link to age and devise a sounder, more flexible system that spans, say, the years 14-19 with pupils taking perhaps 5-8 courses per year and building up a portfolio of achievement according to their progress, interests and needs … building towards, for example, a Latymer Upper School Baccalaureate that would require achievement across a range of disciplines and levels, ensuring breadth, but allowing depth and adventure… Why take a level 2 qualification, for example, when you know you wish to and have the ability and work and learning habits to take it to level 3 or level 4? Why not take a mix of different level qualifications in the higher years? Why not mix in some on-line/blended learning courses, even a specifically vocational course, and international collaboration? Why not have a system organised across 4 or 5 years rather than 2 two year dashes? Why not also build to a portfolio that recognises the habits and skills (collaboration, leadership, service, etc.) that cannot so easily be measured by an individual sitting a written public examination…?

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