Alistair McConville

GCSEs: is a system not dictated by exams possible?

What would an education unencumbered by the traditional exam system look like? Alistair McConville looks at examples from across the globe

GCSE exams

The theme for this year's World Teachers' Day is “Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future”. To mark the occasion, we are putting live, for 24 hours, our special issue where teachers and other experts reimagine what education could look like. For access beyond World Teachers' Day, and to get exclusive weekly content from Tes, subscribe here. The rest of the articles from this special issue can be found here

Disruption famously breeds innovation; necessity leads to invention. So if we are going to have to rip up the structure of the school year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, what might that leave teachers free to do in terms of our pedagogy?

Over the past few months, the profession has embraced unfamiliar methodologies at a scale never before attempted. Exams, so critical to how we structure our teaching across a year, have disappeared.

Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the first rumblings of a revolutionary overthrow of decades of assessment inertia and stress-inducing exam fixation. So how could we seize the moment positively and work towards redesigning our approach for young people up until the age of 16?

One sensible starting point would be to look at outliers and pioneers who have already made such attempts to break free from the exam-only route, and see whether we might learn lessons from them. Such outliers exist.

The International School of Geneva’s Grande Boissière campus is a short walk from Lac Léman. Maybe there’s something about mountain air and waterscapes that inspires creativity: “Ecolint”, as the school is known for short, has radical form.

In its earliest incarnation, it was run by progressive educator Ernest Schwartz, then later by Marie-Therèse Maurette (who both, incidentally, worked previously at that hotbed of English progressivism, Bedales School, where – full disclosure – I ply my own rebellious trade). Ecolint was central to developing the International Baccalaureate, along with Kurt Hahn’s Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales.

Ecolint has a bold new offering to the educational world: the grandiosely named Universal Learning Programme (ULP). Ecolint’s Grande Boissière campus has worked with Unesco’s International Bureau of Education and associated team of academics to develop an entirely fresh, competency-based approach to learning in which exams are just one part of the jigsaw. Might this be an exemplar for a post-Covid education?

I had the privilege of visiting the school just before the seriousness of the current crisis dawned. The charismatic Conrad Hughes, principal of La Grande Boissière, is positively evangelical about the ULP, which is in its third year of delivery after years of planning. The first cohort completes this summer.

So what is the ULP, and how transferable might it be?

Its starting point is that a modern education should be based on four developmental cornerstones, or competencies: character, passion, mastery and collaboration. The ULP’s hypothesis is that an approach that flows from these will lead to authentic “deep understanding”.

When a student learns something, they are not simply mastering material in a vacuum (though Hughes emphasises that rigorous acquisition of knowledge is at the heart of the process); they are also explicitly giving due consideration to its relevance to their own personal development (character), finding ways of linking it to their own interests (passion) and working with others (collaboration) to see how it can be used to improve the world.

Hughes speaks with grand, visionary ambition. He seeks to develop these “eternally important” competencies for the sake of “public and individual goods”.

This all sounds so much more inspiring than the narrowly individualistic rhetoric that so often surrounds GCSEs: “learn this because it’s on the test” ; “you’ll need GCSEs to get a job”, etc. Even advocates of a shift towards competency-based learning tend to emphasise the skills needed for the workplace in particular.

The ULP thinks even more broadly than that, and says, no – learn this to work towards a fundamental understanding of a life worth living, not just for yourself but for others. Not just economically, but as citizens of a compassionate, peaceful, interconnected society. “Educating for peace since 1924” is one of Ecolint’s taglines.

The ULP is overtly moral in its intentions. Values-led learning revolves around the search for a “universal understanding” ; that is, a comprehensive grasp of how “microcompetencies” – the many granular components of larger schemata – contribute to the “macrocompetencies” required by citizens who are motivated and equipped to make a positive social impact.

Built into the structure of the programme is an attempt to break down subject barriers through “transdisciplinarity” for a greater depth of understanding and, crucially, a sense of relevance and purpose.

It’s inspiring rhetoric from a compelling leader and an initiative of authentic conviction. But what does it look like on the ground?

In a Year 11 biology lesson, I saw a series of content-rich, research-based presentations on biological themes, permeated with discussion about their social and ethical implications: what are the implications of CRISPR gene technology for agriculture and world food shortages, for example? The teacher skilfully elicited the big societal issues flowing from the specific technological detail. The language was shot through with metacognitive flags, too, linking explicit references to students’ understanding of neuroscience. They knew that they were engaging in “spaced repetition” to secure their long-term memories.

This was high-level, purposeful, self-aware interaction, without any reference to “the test”. Students carefully noted which microcompetencies they were hitting in the process: so, small acts of teamwork, collaboration, presentation and global awareness fed into the development of their macrocompetencies of self-agency and transdisciplinarity: science meets ethics meets geography.

In an economics lesson, students pitched their idea for a sustainable sixth-form trip to look at universities around Europe, demonstrating how to source and budget for ethical places to stay and eat, and wrestling with the complexities of how to balance monetary and environmental cost. The teacher framed discussion so as to periodically bring the focus back to “universal questions”, raising discussion from the minutiae to the big-picture issues, lest the students get mired in detail. What matters most when choosing a university: its academic research rankings or its sustainability credentials? And how do you balance those competing values in a decision-making process? Wherever I went, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were either on the wall or inveigling their way into discussion. There was plenty of economics-specific language underpinning the lesson, but it also flowed seamlessly into bigger existential questions about rights and responsibilities without students wondering if they had strayed from the syllabus.

Later, in a French lesson ostensibly about the grammar of obligation (je dois, tu dois, il doit, etc), the vehicle for arriving at a “universal understanding” from a grammar drill was a discussion of the environmental impact of fast fashion. The teacher moved up through the ULP skills taxonomy, represented by a pyramid, from “facts” (the nuts and bolts of the language) up into the “topic” of fashion, leading into a consideration of “concepts” – the broader issue of the relationship between fashion and economics – before asking students to derive an explicit “universal understanding” about the relationship between fashion choices, environmental impact and social consequences. Thus, students had to carefully frame the relevance of their disciplinary learning in relation to much broader questions that spanned subject silos and related to real choices that they make on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, skilful GCSE teachers go beyond the delivery of content, too, and syllabuses touch on relevant social and ethical issues, so where is the distinctiveness? Well, partly it’s in the consistent, overarching approach to linking so much of what goes on in the classroom back to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to create a collective sense of moral purpose in every lesson, or at least in every unit of work. The consistency of shared language about the purpose of students’ educational activity led to a strong sense of collective and interconnected endeavour. Perhaps there is something similar in intention behind the idea of fundamental British values, but these are so nebulous as to be ephemeral in the experience of most students. Such a thorough emphasis on social purpose must, I sensed, be highly motivating.

At least as distinctively, the assessment of the learning is genuinely multifaceted. Presentations, group work and project work, as well as traditional tests, are built into teacher-designed assessment. Grades are established via a carefully designed matrix of microcompetency levels, which sit under the four main macrocompetency “themes” of character, passion, collaboration and mastery. So, levelled evidence for mastery of specific elements of a world religions course is one part of the final grade outcome, as well as evidence of effective teamwork or innovation. The ULP leads to a final “passport”, which is essentially a full transcript comprising subject-specific grades; commentary on transdisciplinary projects, such as the passion project; and narrative judgements about a student’s development against the four main pillars.

The passion project is somewhat akin to an extended project, as we know them. I spoke to three students whose passion projects were a series of podcasts about world issues – most recently Covid-19, deforestation and Australian bushfires; women in leadership, culminating in a mini summit with a physical public audience composed of students and experts; and the development of a computer game aimed at preschoolers to educate about the impact of climate change.

The students were highly articulate about the skills they had learned in realising their projects: networking, research skills, coding, sound editing, marketing. All this in the context of something that the students really wanted to do anyway. They had been given time within the curriculum to pursue these things, and were gaining credit for it, too, while fuelling their sense of moral purpose. A social impact “service” project is under development, too, and will form a central plank of future iterations of the ULP, which is both well under way and yet continually evolving.

I really admire the boldness of the ULP’s vision, and the school’s willingness to get on and start it, even while acknowledging that it will change and adapt over time. The ULP already contains many of the elements for which various reformers have been clamouring: project-based learning, real-world applications, the overt valuing of collaborative work, interdisciplinarity rooted in the building of secure knowledge bases – all for a clear, motivating, civically purposeful end.

The fluidity and responsiveness of this approach has been a huge strength during the Covid-19 crisis. The school was able to quickly tilt its assessment regime towards viva spoken examinations and further emphasis on self-led projects presented online when it became clear that the examined elements couldn’t run as planned. This has enabled its Year 11 students to continue with meaningful work for which they will be credited, unlike the Year 11s across the UK, who have, in too many cases, been left stranded.

What of life after school? Many of these students will apply for UK universities with no externally assessed qualifications, armed with an experimental passport and an IB points prediction. Ecolint isn’t remotely concerned about their HE prospects, and fully expects universities to make offers on the back of the value of the work that the students have done. The school is further developing its certification approach to “tell the story of a student’s competence-development, service learning and passion projects, and highlight outstanding work and projects in a portfolio”. It is simply years ahead in adapting its approach to the world’s changing needs.

Just how transferable is this approach to a UK context? (Hughes, by the way, is seeking further partners to roll his approach out more widely, and is already well down the road with a number of schools in other countries.) Before Covid-19, we would no doubt have concluded that we couldn’t do anything so adventurous any time soon at scale. But times have changed. Dare we dream?

A small school in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, gives a fascinating glimpse at what might be. The Acorn School, originally Montessori inspired, has quietly and steadfastly refused to toe the GCSE and A-level line for years. Its students learn English and maths, and everything else besides, but do so without taking any public examinations in them. None.

Students are internally assessed and graded, with the school making judicious use of its own testing policies – but, like Ecolint, using broader, teacher-derived schemes. Students create transcripts, write extended dissertations on areas relevant to their areas of desired study, and send them to colleges and universities alongside their applications with an explanation of their approach. And guess what? The school get its students into a wide range of HE institutions without presenting so much as a single qualification sausage. This year, one student obtained an interview for Cambridge on the back of an extended thesis they had written. Students have, for years, accessed a range of Russell Group and other competitive universities.

How? Well, it turns out that admissions offices are far more flexible and willing to understand individual circumstances than some might suspect. Universities are used to a sizeable portion of their applications coming from non-GCSE systems, given that around 18 per cent of UK university places are taken up by students from schools overseas, many of whom will have transcripts that require deciphering and grade translation that is not like-for-like. Admissions staff aren’t robots, and universities are, in most cases, looking for reasons to admit students, not to reject them. It’s simply a myth that everyone has to present their transcript in the same form.

Are these examples mere outliers, destined to remain so? Maybe not. The global shift is further evidenced by the emergence of the US-based Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). In this approach, a digital transcript for university applications functions as a repository for student work and narrative teacher judgements without recourse to stark grading or standardised test scores. It forms a holistic picture of a student’s development and strengths, much as Ecolint’s approach does.

The Putney School in Vermont, US, is an early adopter, and plans to use the MTC platform alongside its own internal grades in order to escape the tyrannical content overload of SATs.

Meanwhile, there is a reformed approach in British Columbia, Canada, where, similarly, internal assessments lead to holistic leaving certificates. The Integrated Programme in Singapore tells a similar story. Recognising that students were not well served by two sets of high-stakes exams, the reformed approach, in a notoriously conservative country, has passed a huge amount of responsibility back to teachers and schools to develop and assess their own programmes for some students.

Something is most definitely afoot. An Association of School and College Leaders survey in the UK found that 86 per cent of leaders supported the reform or scrapping of GCSEs as they stand. Perhaps, hopefully, possibly, a silver lining of the horrors of Covid-19 will be the raising of yet more trumpets, Joshua-style, to bring the wretched walls of GCSEs finally tumbling down.

Alistair McConville is director of learning and innovation at Bedales School

This article originally appeared in the 29 May 2020 issue under the headline “Can we ease the stranglehold exams have on our school system?”