Are GCSEs worth saving?

Should we persist with GCSEs this year? What would we lose if we got rid of them altogether, asks Kevin Stannard

Kevin Stannard

Coronavirus and exams: Are GCSEs worth saving?

To the trauma of last summer’s exams fiasco is now added the nightmare of another year of uncertainty and chaos. An increasing number of educators are coalescing around the conclusion that GCSE isn’t the answer, but with a Kafkaesque twist: if GCSE isn’t the answer, what exactly was the question?

Without seeming to make a decision, the Department for Education and Ofqual are gradually killing the GCSE. Before the start of the new term, the idea had been to salvage next summer’s exams by cutting content to reflect the loss of learning time. We were assured that reliable assessments could be based on less testing. 

But a one-off jettisoning of content won’t do the trick. We’ll need a sliding scale of specification pruning. The hoped-for return to normality this term has proved illusory. Students are suffering differential amounts of disruption, and will do for months, depending on their personal circumstances, their school and their location.

At what point will the amount of content become so small that it is no longer a reliable – or a fair – test?

Should next year's GCSEs be rescued?

Can the next GCSE exam session be saved? Ofqual's suggestions that high-stakes testing might go online have been interpreted as further evidence of the regulator’s detachment from reality. Exams could be pushed further into the summer, but that would simply be punishing students and teachers for the government’s failure to come up with a credible and creative solution. 

Could GCSEs stay, but with grades determined by schools? There was only ever one get-out-of-jail-free card, and it’s been used. In the past academic year, schools were instructed to submit centre-assessed grades, on the understanding that the estimates needed to be credible, and that they would be called out if they were overegged. Following their publication, schools have had to deal with parents and students who don’t see why the grades weren’t higher. They won’t make the same mistake again. Straight 9s, anyone?

Do we even need a battery of high-stakes exams at age 16? After all, students are supposed to stay in formal education beyond that age, and most go on to other qualifications. 

However, testing is important: for some, GCSEs are the last set of high-stakes tests that they and employers can use in applications. There must be a way to assess a student’s suitability to continue in specific academic subjects.

Why can’t it be done through school-based assessment, relying less on snapshot pictures of ability in pen-and-paper tests, and more on continuous assessment through a course? One problem is the anxiety that comes from perfectionism, if everything in a course counts directly towards the grade.

What's good about GCSEs?

How would we assure fairness between schools? The answer to this is possibly to make these qualifications less high-stakes and more lowest-common-denominator – replacing GCSE with a school certificate. The function would simply be to indicate that a student has reached a minimum standard in key subjects. 

Then the problem becomes one of motivation. Under Obama’s presidency in the USA there was a lot of interest in the GCSE from states that wanted to increase engagement among students who weren’t on a trajectory towards SATs and APs. 

The American scrutiny identified a lot of what is good about GCSE: it isn’t particularly reductive, it doesn’t depend on a limited style of yes-no or multiple-choice questions or word substitutions. It does allow for extended answers and the use of professional judgement.

What it doesn’t have to be is a preordained size. If a student takes eight GCSEs, it’s not because that number has any educational significance – quite the opposite, where it involves educationally indefensible choices between (usually humanities) subjects. The number of GCSEs is determined largely by how many will fit into a timetable. If – as we now know – attainment can be assessed by fewer tests on smaller amounts of content, then all bets are off.

Why not slim everything down to the minimum needed to be able to report reliably on relevant competencies at age 16? Why not limit it to the subjects where further specialisation requires assurance of ability? Why not free schools to develop curricula that go way beyond those minimums, and report on them in ways that work for them? Why not include competencies that are not subject-specific, like creativity and problem-solving?

Last question: what if leading schools decide to break away before the DfE reaches its decision to pull the plug on GCSE? The lesson of the Cambridge Pre-U exam is instructive here: Pre-U’s fatal flaw was not its small entry or its educational elitism. It did not, in the event, attract enough schools beyond its narrow initial constituency: a few leading independent schools. 

This is a national crisis; now is not the time to be divisive. There may be an emerging agreement around what the key questions are, but we’ll need a consensus on what the ultimate answer is.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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