To assess or not to assess: the great GCSE debacle

Recent announcements regarding the abandonment of GCSEs in favour of an English Baccalaureate should have prompted once again the question of whether or not assessments at this stage of a young person’s career are in fact worthwhile, but these voices have been drowned out as commentators have rushed to deal with the details of the proposed changes: no modules, little coursework, single exam boards for each subject, and so on. There has been little or no space for a sensible discussion about the real question: how useful it is to assess skills and knowledge at the age of 16, an age which is now both too early (as the school leaving age rises to 18, and time is wasted in a needless assessment – a defunct ‘school leaving certificate) and too late – if our young people reach the age of 16 without the core literacy and numeracy skills that GCSEs in practice represent, then for many of them, they hover already on the brink of a difficult future in society.

To be fair, GCSEs (and O Levels and CSEs before them) were created with the best of intentions and to fit the need required of them at the time. O Levels prepared pupils for university and through the grammar schools were one of the greatest means of ensuring social mobility that this country has ever known. CSEs prepared pupils for a trade and a livelihood. Recognising the social divisiveness that resulted from a two tier system, GCSEs were introduced in the late 1980s to be a more inclusive examination, open to all young people, with a range of grades available, from A to G. All young people were to be treated equally under the new system.

The system soon showed strain, of course, as effectively a grade C became the de facto goal. A ‘C’ was the pass mark -something for which the wider aspirations of those sitting above the line and below the line were often sacrificed, in the fight for the magical grade that would open doors to Sixth Form study, and would reflect well in a school’s league tables. In order that standards might be seen to be improving, grade inflation set in; it became easier and easier to achieve a grade C, with the consequence that more and more pupils attained a grade A, which meant in turn that a grade A became more and more meaningless, and necessitated the introduction of a top grade of A* in 1994. The A* too was subject to grade inflation, with steadily increasing percentages each year until 2012; if this ‘improvement’ had been a real one, it is reasonable to expect – limitations of data and international comparisons aside – that the UK’s PISA score would not have dropped in the way in which it has done over the same period. GCSEs have lost much of their credibility, without a doubt.

No more proof of this is needed than the dreadful mess this past summer over the AQA GCSE English grades, which have been subject to interference by Ofqual and artificial manipulation by the exam board in question. The goal posts were shifted – visibly, and, for the pupils concerned, actually most unfairly. They and their teachers had effectively prepared for a certain set of criteria expectations; for those criteria and expectations to be changed at the last minute, after the papers had been sat, has had devastating consequences for many young people, who anticipated access to further study and apprenticeships. The tyranny of the C grade boundary hit again.

So – with an examination no longer fit for purpose, what does one do? Well, instead of replacing one flawed system with another, more rigid, narrower, equally age bound, and potentially equally flawed system, what we should be doing in the UK is questioning why on earth we should be taking an examination at this stage anyway. We should be asking what we want our young people to be able to do and know by the age at which they will leave school, ie 18, and we should be realising, I hope, that we need to be far, far more responsive to their individual needs. Our young people do of course need certain basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy, as well as a basic understanding of the world around them, but they need this much earlier than the age of 16 – and, crucially, different people will acquire these skills at different times and in different ways. By the age of 18, we should be expecting our young adults – for this is what they are – to be free to determine much more effectively their own paths in life, to have developed passions and interests, and to be encouraged as individuals – not cohorts – to follow these in preparation for leading a fulfilling life.

We should be looking critically at the structural shackles that we need to break in order to facilitate this much more individualised and responsive approach – age-related DfE results tables, for instance, as well as exam syllabuses that lock in study over a period of two years – the same two years – for everyone. We should look at different speeds of study, individual mentoring, bespoke education plans, one-on-one tutoring and mentoring. And we need to think long and hard about funding: a great education is costly, but one of the best investments we can make as a society.

Our young people are all different; we live and work in a century which values difference. We should find ways to enable our school system to reflect these principles. GCSEs – and their proposed replacement – have had their day. Time to move on and create a structure that really, really works.

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