Should we scrap GCSEs entirely?

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The recent omnishambles in relation to A-Level results has driven me to consider the broader education picture, particularly GCSEs. I don’t believe they’re necessary anymore, assuming they were ever necessary. In fact, there are, in my opinion, considerable advantages that could be gained by ridding ourselves of formal examinations at 16 entirely.

I am primarily focused on the system as it is in England as I appreciate that there are some differences between England, Wales and Northern Ireland and obviously even more so with Scotland.

What’s the point of GCSEs anymore?

As far as I’m aware England’s system of major high stakes public examinations at both 16 and 18 is an anachronism. It’s not done in the rest of the EU, or the USA, or any other country I could find researching this yesterday. Depending on the country there are some assessments of children’s abilities and understanding when they reach around 15/16 but only as a means of moving them to the next stage. They do not have any long-term implications nor are they standardised/formalised. GCSEs narrow the curriculum unnecessarily, force pupils into an arbitrary choice a few years prior and then waste at least a few months foregoing teaching (other than examination technique) on the run up to the examinations, in favour of preparation for examinations.

Imagine if GCSEs simply weren’t there at all – what would be the scope of teaching opportunities that could present? There would be more time for developing skills such as coding or touch typing (I have no idea why schools have stopped teaching kids to type), more time on foreign languages, more time for experiments, music, drama, politics or philosophy. If deemed necessary there could still be an aptitude test for English and Mathematics but this could be school assessed and certificated - judged via continued assessment or a test that didn’t require revision. It would not be a grade that is measured against others but a certificate that says ‘yes this person meets a required level of English and Mathematics’.

By law, students have to remain in some form of education in England until they’re 18. GCSEs and O-Levels made some sort of sense when it was an option to leave education entirely at 16 but this is no longer true. No examinations at 16 is also a leveller, students can’t be tutored to do well in the examinations giving a potentially false account of their capabilities.

If we abandon GCSE how will this impact A-Level?

One of the issues that I think many missed in the percentage difference between the Centre Assessed Grades that students were (eventually) awarded this year for A-Level and the grades they would get in typical year is the difference between capability and examination performance. The difference is not because teachers are artificially inflating grades it is because teachers can’t account for unexpected circumstances on the day of an examination.
The CAG’s awarded the grades students were arguably capable of. However, in a typical examination year, some students might oversleep and consequently be classified with a ‘U’, they might have an argument with a family member that impacts their mood and miss a grade or they might simply be unlucky with the questions that arise in the examination versus the questions they revised (that can work in their favour as well). Examinations have a margin of error in respect to measuring capabilities of students which, perhaps is represented by the percentage difference between the CAG results for this year and the examined grades from 2019. A system of measuring student performance throughout their academic career instead of their performance on one day has significant benefits. I’m not suggesting revising A-Levels at least for now, although reinstating AS-Levels after a year counting towards a final A-Level grade makes sense as is the case in Wales. I believe scrapping GCSEs is a more achievable goal and the recent fiasco may make the idea more politically viable.

If students don’t go through an examination period at 16 the limiting factors of bad luck or circumstance don’t impact their choice of A-Levels. In addition to that, the last year or so of schooling at 16 could be, where possible, geared towards the A-Levels they are going to take instead of preparing for examinations they don’t need. It would allow a combination of a narrower and broader curriculum at the same time (they could have more focus on a chosen A-Level subject, say physics but also have themed courses i.e. how to manage personal finances). A more accurate assessment than grades would necessarily be passed on to colleges, sixth form departments, etc. than simply a grade and a presumption of capability based on that grade. This shouldn’t immediately equate to more work for teachers, as (potentially) beyond English and Mathematics, standardisation would not be necessary and possibly an elevated end of year report will suffice. Teachers may well gain time not having to organise mocks and prepare for examinations. These benefits would apply irrespective of the route for further education a student picked, A-Level, BTEC or apprenticeship.

What do employers think about GCSEs?

I mostly recruit people who have a degree and at least a few years’ experience. A degree grade remains relevant throughout your career to an extent (but it does depreciate), A-Level results are rarely asked for and GCSEs almost never. They are really only a factor when there is a high volume of applicants with very little between them although to me it has always seemed ill-advised to judge someone’s potential for a job in their 20s by examinations they took when they were 16. In most cases, and for most applications, if you have a degree and left GCSE grades off your CV no one would follow up or care.

For employers who are recruiting candidates who are younger, at say, 18, I would still argue that their grades at A-Level or BTEC or any other qualifications they received are a much better indicator than GCSE other than assessing that they have an appropriate level of English and Mathematics which would still be provided under my proposal.

In summary

Whilst almost no idea is perfect, I think the benefits of scrapping GCSEs massively outweigh the disadvantages. It would give students a wider curriculum, more preparation for the more crucial A-Level examinations and ultimately make teaching more fulfilling and less bureaucratic. 2020 is an opportunity to really think about how we treat our kids through our current education system and develop something that is fairer and better. We should not be tinkering around the edges as governments have done for decades but strive for a radical change. GCSEs are a good place to start.

Pete Fellows.

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