GCSE overhaul: reform in haste, repent at leisure

By Brian Lightman

Has the GCSE had its day?

When I started thinking about writing on this subject some while ago I had not dreamt that the spectre of reintroducing O Levels was about to be raised. Nevertheless, amid all of the debate around current proposals for qualifications reform, two particular contributions had really caught my eye.

Firstly, John Cridland, the CBI director general, had gone on record about GCSEs, saying that they encourage teaching to the test and they do not deliver the key skills needed in the workplace. He had also warned that the qualification was preventing teachers from providing an “inspirational classroom experience”.

To be clear, this was not yet another attack on the teaching profession from an ill-informed businessman complaining about the literacy levels of the shelf-stackers he or she employed. The CBI has decided to put education high on its agenda and has recently set up a project to establish what the business world can do to help our education system improve.

The DfE responded to Cridland’s statement with a reassurance that reforms to GCSEs would address the CBI’s concerns. Nevertheless, the questions he raises are far more fundamental than the changes to examinations that ministers are currently considering.

Secondly, the Welsh Government has launched a review of 14-19 qualifications with some thought-provoking ideas, including challenging the very idea of GCSEs and suggesting that a whole new structure of qualifications may be developed in the principality. Everyone involved with this brave review is acutely aware of the enormous risks of relinquishing the well-known GCSE brand, which is why these questions are framed as genuine consultation in the context of long-term planning.

In contrast, the National Curriculum Review in England has been focusing on very specific and detailed changes to the content of the curriculum without addressing the big questions about the purpose of a National Curriculum in the current policy context. In the same way, we are now witnessing hastily-implemented changes to examination specifications before a more fundamental discussion has taken place.

This, then, is key: we need to take a fundamental and broad-ranging view of qualifications at 16, not incremental, hasty, bit-by-bit decisions and certainly not a return to an outdated two tier system that condemns thousands of young people to a second rate qualification like the deservedly-extinct CSE.

Since GCSEs were introduced in 1988, four of the so called pass grades have lost all currency, and coursework has been discredited and replaced by a cumbersome system of controlled assessment that makes excessive demands on teaching time. The GCSE has become one of a hotchpotch of qualifications, which confuses employers. It is no wonder some independent schools have replaced it with alternatives – but that only adds to the confusion. Meanwhile, teachers have been condemned to a treadmill of change to GCSEs for the next three years with no scheme of work in place for more than one year. They now face the prospect of further changes even before these have been implemented. It is incredibly difficult for schools to plan coherently in the context of so many unresolved issues.

Yet there is no doubt that our examination system needs fundamental reform and that we need to raise our game in an ever-more challenging global market. However, the barrier appears to be the uniquely British obsession with external assessment – to the exclusion of almost any degree of trust in the teaching profession. This has created a costly and unwieldy burden we can ill afford and which is leading to all kinds of unintended consequences.

Examinations are an effective tool for assessing pupils’ knowledge and understanding, but we have to recognise that they can never do more than sample aspects of a course. Our approach to assessment has to be reformed and there is a compelling case for an independent review to consider this.

Here are some of the questions we need to ask:

  • What can we realistically expect examinations for 16-year-olds to assess?
  • What is the purpose of an examination for 16-year-olds when the participation age is being raised to 18?
  • Why do we continue to rely so heavily on external examinations when other countries, including those performing highly, do not? What can we learn from those countries?
  • How can we build upon the systems we currently have to ensure that the crucial key skills employers need are seen as key outcomes for every young person?
  • How can assessment help young people leave school or college with a set of skills which meet the needs of a rapidly changing employment market and which prepare them to engage in lifelong learning?
  • Are there aspects of assessment which would be better conducted by appropriately trained teachers than in exams?
  • What would happen to pupils from 11-16 schools moving into post-16 institutions do in terms of qualifications associated with leaving?

In considering these questions we must not fall into the familiar trap of starting with our accountability system. That is completely the wrong way around. To maintain a system just because it is a useful tool for measuring school performance is wrong, especially if we decide that GCSEs are no longer the right qualification for pupils.

As our starting point we must look at the outcomes we want for young people at the end of compulsory education. Once we have got the curriculum and assessment right we can revisit the accountability measures, placing them where they rightly belong – namely at the end, not the middle, of the education process.

I would not presume to know all the answers to these questions but I am certain that the GCSE in its current form – even after the proposed revisions – will not be enough on its own to make our high ambitions for our education service a reality. What I do know is that getting this right is of vital importance for the health of our economy and the wellbeing of our society in general.

Brian Lightman is general secretary of the ASCL