Analysis: Could artificial intelligence replace GCSEs?

Some top independent schools are exploring replacing GCSEs with educational technology - but will fee-paying parents really go for this?

ai school

Elite independent schools are currently in talks with a technology company exploring a new artificial intelligence programme that could replace GCSEs.

Yet while a digital alternative to the GCSE  that some schools view as "increasingly dry" might sound promising, how feasible would it really be?

Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, has spoken of how this could create a far more “personalised” style of learning, with computer programmes constructing a digitised profile of each pupil’s skills. And arguably, the historic reason for GCSEs no longer exists, given that most students do not leave school at 16. 


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So the idea of a bespoke digital learning platform is attractive, and according to one source in the private school sector, senior figures at Ofsted are interested.

Rather than studying a raft of GCSEs, pupils would learn from an online programme alongside their usual class teaching. The programme could be adaptive to their needs, building up a detailed profile of their strengths and weaknesses. It could tell potential employers that a child might struggle with grammar, yet is also a gifted public speaker.

And it would also assist the "forgotten third", currently doomed to fail maths and English GCSE. It sounds almost utopian – "failing" an exam would become a thing of the past. 

However, there are practical issues to consider.

Firstly, are fee-paying parents likely to want this? Private schools do have more freedom to explore alternative models of teaching and assessment – Bedales School already teaches just five core GCSEs alongside their own curriculum, which is recognised by Ucas.

That said, a personalised curriculum is one thing, but private school parents may be less entranced by the idea of paying for their children to sit with a computer app.

In Mike Buchanan’s view, the app would leave teachers free to pursue their passions, and he stresses that this would not replace the deeply personal, human connection at the heart of good teaching. Nonetheless, if the app proved successful, could it undermine the profession? A future where children are taught solely by teacher-bots sounds faintly terrifying.

A further issue would be how universities might respond. Speaking at the HMC conference, Bella Malins, director of access and admissions at UCL, said universities prefer GCSEs to in-school assessments – national, public exams are a form of quality assurance. 

Would universities accept these qualifications? Yes, GCSEs can be a crude means of measuring someone’s talent and ability, but they do provide a snapshot of what someone can do. A digital profile of every child’s complex range of strengths and weaknesses could be difficult to navigate, for both employers and higher education providers.

It is fair to say that many see GCSEs as problematic. Endlessly tinkered with, revised and reformed, it is no surprise that today’s teenagers are increasingly stressed and anxious. An A grade is no longer enough when there are now two grades above it. In addition, GCSEs condemn the forgotten third to endless difficulties when pursuing further employment or education.

Nonetheless, the idea that AI is the answer, while tempting, may be unworkable in practice. It would also mean children spending even more time in front of screens, when surely good education depends on the rich, lively discussions that happen between teachers and pupils.

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