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The dangers of creating an unforgiving exam system

Posted on: 24 Nov 2014

As the Girls’ Schools Association Conference gets under way this week, President Alice Phillips warns of the danger of creating an unforgiving exam system…

Today, my younger self would be written off at the age of 16 by the unforgiving system we are creating. It’s a system with no real second chances, no wriggle room or place to make amends. As I try to inspire the young women in my school and watch them trying to measure up to grade requirements at such a relatively young age, I am outraged because I, too, am required to ‘play the system’ to help them fulfil their ambitions.

The decoupling of the AS from the A Level is likely to erode the breadth of subjects young people study. Over time it will drop from four to three, undoing one of the real strengths of Curriculum 2000. And as universities increasingly make their unconditional offers at A Level, they will therefore be forced to refer back to GCSEs as the best indicators of a student’s degree potential. I know that there are many who favour the linear A Level, but I am not one of them and I believe it’s not too late to review the reforms and maintain an element of midway assessment.

Add to this the new GCSE grade scale, with its possibility of two even smaller bands where the already narrow A* currently sits, and sixteen year olds are going to feel an intensity of expectation that is greater than ever. Many of them will aspire to achieve a GCSE ‘10’. Is that really what we want, in their first public examination?

Don’t get me wrong. Rigour is good. Students flourish when they are required to study a subject in depth. But it seems that the need for accountability and PISA perfection has driven the Department for Education and other quangos to create an assessment structure akin to rigour on speed. What are we doing? It seems that if it can be graded and put on a scale, compared, averaged, manipulated and mangled, it must be both good and useful. The General Certificate of Secondary Education should be what its full name suggests: an indication of roadworthiness across a range of subjects – call them Progress 8 if we must – that is a positive foundation for something to come, not a last chance saloon.

Thank goodness independent sector schools are accountable first and foremost to parents. And thank goodness those of us who believe it best are free to pursue the iGCSE and other public examinations.

Thank goodness independent sector schools are accountable first and foremost to parents. And thank goodness those of us who believe it best are free to pursue the iGCSE and other public examinations.


If there is an answer to be found it must surely be in the frank acknowledgement that education should be removed from quangos and party politics. We all know this. I think even the politicians recognise it. Let’s remove the costly changes of direction and ‘quick fix’ initiatives that are driven by our adversarial political system. Children and their future – our country’s future – should not be at the mercy of those for whom education is a means to secure votes and power, though I do concede that our elected representatives must have a presence.

The Secretary of State for Education’s commission to establish an independently run College of Teaching is at least a starting point, provided it does not turn into another quango. With our collective experience and worldwide respect, the independent sector is surely well positioned to play its part. Our academic standards are of the highest and our enrichment activities – sport, music, drama, the arts – world class. Our pastoral systems and alumni networks are the envy of the world and our schools are already heavily engaged in a plethora of independent-state sector partnerships.

We can and I believe we should play our part in helping to devise a new and better education system, fit for our country’s purpose and culture.


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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.