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Is this the end of GCSEs?

The future of GCSE is under intense discussion at present, with calls for its abolition. The Headmaster, Andrew Johnson, believes that the current pandemic crisis offers an opportunity to focus on how we can adapt and reform GCSE to best serve our pupils over the next decade.


Just consider, for a moment, what it must be like to be in year 11 right now, in the midst of a pandemic, after a summer of exam chaos, with an uncertain 6 months ahead. Our 15- and 16-year olds have seen their immediate predecessors receive Centre Assessed Grades for their GCSEs, their summer exams having been replaced by lockdown. Year 11 students realise that it is by no means certain whether they themselves will be taking exams next summer. And perhaps they are also aware of the intense debate currently raging around GCSEs, which are criticised as ‘too narrow’, ‘not fit for purpose’, and with ensuing calls for their abolition and replacement.

Like the rest of us, our GCSE students are having to adapt to a new school life of year-group ‘bubbles’ for academic lessons and co-curricular activities; endless hand-sanitising and mask-wearing, and one-way systems around the school. But they also shoulder the particular anxiety borne of uncertainty over how their progress will be assessed next year.

This summer, teachers at St Benedict’s worked closely together to ensure the fair and rigorous allocation of GCSE Centre Assessed Grades. Now at the start of the new academic year, we are reassuring our year 11 students and their parents that we have plans in place to ensure fair assessment, should exams have to be cancelled again. We are making sure that we’ve got sufficient robust evidence of our students’ progress over the two years of GCSE, in addition to the regular, six-weekly tracking we already do as a matter of course, just in case it’s needed to support the allocation of grades.

We are also internally moderating the marks we award in school exams to ensure that they reflect the standards required at GCSE (and at A level). Students in years 11 and 13, who are at the sharp end of all the exam grades uncertainty, started the autumn term with the mock exams they would have taken in May, which provided them with an invaluable benchmark of where they are now, academically, and where they need to be by June next year in order to achieve what they are each capable of achieving. Also taken into account are the revisions to certain exam syllabuses: while we want to be sure that students have a wide-ranging education and follow a broad curriculum, we’re mindful that certain topics will not be examined next summer.

What of the voices saying it’s time for change at 16+; that we should abolish GCSE?

When GCSE was introduced in 1988 children could either leave school at this point or stay on to do A levels. Since all students now remain at school until they are 18, some argue that exams at 16+ are obsolete. However, I believe that a qualification at the age of 16 – especially if it is a summary of what they have achieved so far – academically, creatively, personally, socially – a broader assessment of their achievements  -  is a useful staging post. For as long as the UK system encourages greater specialisation between the ages of 16 and 18, currently in the form of A levels, it makes sense to have something that validates the broader curriculum studied up to 16. After that, it suits some young people to embark upon a more vocational curriculum while others begin their academic A level courses.

The question therefore is whether GCSE in its present form offers the right style of assessment at that point. Most educators would agree that the GCSE is too mechanical; that it has become a means of ranking schools, rather than advancing education, and that it entrenches an arid teaching-to-the-test approach.

I would like to see GCSE evolve to become much broader in its reach and requirements. A diploma-like qualification at 16, perhaps modelled on the International Baccalaureate, could encourage the development of wider skills that are undoubtedly valuable for the work place and for life. Within a broad range of subjects, including science, humanities, arts and languages, thinking skills and philosophy could be included, which would help students to make connections in their learning, rather than the current system, which entrenches a belief that subjects are separate and discrete.  Assessment could be correspondingly broad: as well as some formal exams, presentations and extended essays could be included, allowing individual students to play to their different strengths. Some people are blessed with the accurate and swift recall required by exams; others could benefit enormously from being given the opportunity to talk about what they have learned. And an extended essay would allow students to focus on and research an area of particular interest to them, rather than jumping through the hoops of a syllabus.  I would also like to see credit given for skills such as the ability to work as a team, to analyse, research, evaluative and present information - orally and in writing.

A broader assessment could also have, as a key objective, to mitigate the excessive pressure and stress felt by many of our teenagers at the time of GCSE.

Our children are so much more than a collection of grades, something which seems to have been forgotten with the creeping industrialisation of education. In contrast to our algorithm-dependent assessment schemes, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a system which recognised and rewarded participation in activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme, with its map-reading, teamwork and self-sufficiency training, co-curricular skills and voluntary service requirements? Or which was flexible enough to credit the personal, as well as the academic, development of our young people?

Some will say that such provision is easily provided in independent schools, with their resources and established traditions of co-curricular excellence. But this is not about money and resources, it’s about outlook, organisation and a determination to bring these highly educational elements into school life and make such opportunities available to all children, a view which OFSTED now seems to endorse with its recent statement of intent that “[school] leaders [should] take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.” A welcome change of approach: if the vast amount of effort and resources schools have had to invest in ticking boxes for OFSTED could be released for other initiatives which contribute to each individual student’s personal development, that really would be a result.

Every crisis presents an opportunity to reappraise what we have; to look at how we do things with new eyes and to find the courage to change for the better. Perhaps this is the moment to find a better way of assessing the progress, academic and otherwise, our 16 year-olds have made, and with a new purpose: not to categorise them in narrow academic terms as successes or failures, but to help them to find where they can thrive and flourish in the future.






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