GCSEs are flawed – but scrapping them carries a risk

The cancellation of this year’s exams has prompted many to question the viability of GCSEs. But the qualification has a distinct advantage
12th June 2020, 12:02am
Gcses Are Flawed
William Stewart

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GCSEs are flawed – but scrapping them carries a risk

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/gcses-are-flawed-scrapping-them-carries-risk

Get used to the new normal. It's quickly become the cliché of this unsettling time. But, like all clichés, it's true.

Old certainties are being swept away. And emerging trends such as home working are quickly morphing into unstoppable forces that could transform the way we live.

So, it is easy to see why some hope that the enforced suspension of this summer's exams could reshape schools in the same way. The pandemic has allowed some optimism for those sick of the constricting impact our all-consuming testing culture has on the way we educate our children.

If we can substitute teacher assessment for the exam hall in 2020, then why not drop it for good? Those calling for change see "a whiff of 1968 revolution in the air"; they talk of "people rising up and demanding something better".

This isn't just dreamy eyed idealism. Covid-19 is providing an opportunity for an existing, carefully argued campaign to gain fresh momentum. And it has a clear, concrete aim: the end of GCSEs.

Last week, a group of high-powered educationalists met online to discuss how they could build a movement to achieve that goal. It included notable state and private school leaders - some of whom have already started dropping GCSEs - as well as the man who introduced the qualification: the education secretary in 1986, Lord Baker.

Much is in their favour. There is now no question that GCSEs have colonised the secondary curriculum, with some students being drilled in GCSE-style tests from age 11.

The argument that the qualification is needed to hold schools to account was blown out of the water when Damian Hinds scrapped floor standards in favour of judgements from Ofsted. And the inspectorate seems to want schools to spend less time on GCSEs and more on the rest of the curriculum.

The coup de grace for campaigners is the fact that the education participation age has now been raised to 18. If a GCSE is no longer the final stage in someone's education, then why bother with the exam at all?

But this, I think, is where caution is needed. GCSEs may seem pretty pointless if you go on to take A levels and attend university. But what about the many students who don't?

Concern has grown recently about the "forgotten third" - those who fail to achieve a grade 4 in English and maths GCSEs. But is there a danger that they would become even further forgotten if GCSEs disappeared altogether?

The GCSE has an important advantage: it is a common currency that everyone understands. That is why it was introduced in the first place: to end the stigmatising divide of middle-class O levels and CSEs for the rest.

Getting rid of GCSEs altogether might risk returning England to an even worse time - the era before CSEs, when a huge proportion of students left school without any qualifications.

Some kind of teacher-assessed substitute is among the suggestions for reform. But it would need to offer real worth to those without A levels and degrees to show to employers.

We remain a class-ridden nation, and the ill-fated saga of Labour's diploma as a rival to A levels sits as an example to anyone who thinks a new regime can work without buy-in from all of society.

There are also big implications for education's latter stages. If we were to stop examining so many subjects at 16, then would the specialism our system allows at A level and our resulting three-year degree courses also have to go?

GCSEs can be a hugely dysfunctional waste of many people's time. But any scheme to scrap them must be very carefully thought through or it could be those who can least afford it who end up suffering the most.

@wstewarttes

This article originally appeared in the 12 June 2020 issue under the headline "Remember the forgotten third as we debate the future of GCSEs"

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