A celebration of GCSE results … but can we ensure this is one of the last?

GCSE results are out, and they are fantastic – a huge congratulations to all girls at St Mary’s Calne, from Year 9 upwards, who have been awarded their GCSEs. A tally of 79% A*-A is outstanding – well done! Almost two thirds of the girls gained at least 8 A* and A grades. They worked hard and their focus and determination paid off. They deserve their success and should delight in the outcome of all their efforts.

GCSEs are remarkably stressful. Girls taking AS and A Levels often remark that the process of taking these more advanced exams, although accompanied by a stress of expectation, with university places hanging on them, is actually less stressful than the process of sitting GCSEs. This is largely down the large number of GCSE examinations expected of any one pupil (typically around 10-11 for an academic candidate), the breadth of subjects (a shift from Geography to German to Biology within a few hours would tax anyone), and the sheer length of time that it all takes. Practical sessions start in March, and final papers may still be going on in mid-June; practically quarter of a year is devoted to the sitting of these exams.

And the time lost from study is exacerbated by their positioning so close to the summer holidays. The relief of exams finishing, and the sheer exhaustion which comes as a result, means that a learning gap of around 6 months can appear, with students then struggling to re-engage with their studies in early September. We combat this at St Mary’s Calne with a Sixth Form induction programme in late June and substantial reading lists, but the girls’ desire for a break from study is entirely understandable. They have gone through the mill, and need to recover … but the outcome is a large hole in their precious learning time at school.

The question is, of course, why we are still putting them through this mill. GCSEs at present are unavoidable: no matter how much we seek to alleviate the pain by entering students for early examination, advising that a limited number of subjects are taken, and seeking constantly to place these exams in context (they are only exams, after all, and not the be all and end all of life), the undeniable fact is that GCSE English and Maths are the basic building blocks of any further study, and that universities look at an applicant’s GCSE results closely, often figuring them into their assessment process.

This does not have to be the case, and you will know some of what I think about this if you have read today’s Independent. Examinations at 16 are a historical construct, a school leaving certificate, from a time when the majority of pupils did not stay on for further study. The school age is rising to 18, and it makes little sense to continue to test at 16. Arguably, if GCSEs are seen as threshold assessments of essentially basic skills, then the age of 16, when apathy and desperation have set in, is far too late to test them. Moreover, in an attempt to ensure that a single exam is accessible to all – and the pass rate continues to rise – the banality of the content of some of the courses on offer is striking. It is no wonder that young people can find Modern Languages GCSEs so uninspiring, for instance; I admire them even more for sticking with them and gaining the grades that they do.

The solution is to test these basic skills earlier, when children are ready to pass a benchmark in reading, writing and maths, as well as linguistic, cultural and scientific awareness – and no later than 14 in any case. Testing children and young people when they are ready, in a very personal way, will allow them to progress faster, to be inspired and to follow their passions. It is not wonder that our young people feel as if they have been placed on a conveyer belt by a relentless society; visit an examinations hall sometime soon and see how it makes you feel. It would be so much better to acknowledge and celebrate achievement over time in a wide range of subject areas without necessarily demanding a public examination. In this way, we would have a chance of recognising real, sustained and sustainable learning rather than the pressurised learning for specific periods, with the implication that it does not matter if this learning is not retained beyond the exam date.

So, has the time come to close the chapter on GCSEs? At the very least, it is fast approaching – but only if we keep up this message. In the meantime, let us celebrate with this year’s GCSE cohorts. Well done to them all for navigating the system so effectively. Congratulations on their results!

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