A new report – released on the same day that Ofqual's consultation on GCSE and A-level grading this year closes – has called for GCSEs to be scrapped by 2025 as part of an overhaul of secondary education.
The report from the thinktank EDSK, called Re-assessing the future, recommends that the Department for Education replace GCSEs with national computer-based assessments in almost all national curriculum subjects.
It argues that using online tests would also help to "Covid-proof" the exams system, and "directly address the problems caused by the fragile nature of the existing GCSE regime that relies almost exclusively on a fixed schedule of paper-based testing in large venues with all the associated person-to-person contact that this necessitates".
"Hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds sitting up to 30 hours of onerous written examinations when they still have at least two more years of education or training ahead of them is plainly disproportionate and unnecessary," the report says, adding that the cost to schools of delivering the current system of exams at age 16 has now reached almost £200 million a year.
Call for GCSEs to be scrapped
The report recommends that GCSEs should be scrapped and replaced with national online assessments taken at age 15, completed in the summer term of Year 10 and lasting for 1.5 to 2 hours per subject, reducing the current exam workload of 3.5 to 4 hours per subject.
The report suggests that the content for each assessment "will be derived from the national curriculum for key stage 3 plus the first year of the current GCSE specifications in each subject", to ensure that "the new assessments are as rigorous and respected as GCSEs".
Pupils would then be awarded a Lower Secondary Certificate, which would show each student’s overall score as well as their percentile rank.
"No letter- or number-based grades will be issued and the current system of ‘comparable outcomes’ will be scrapped," the report says.
"Around one-third of pupils must be awarded grades 1 to 3 each year – leading to accusations that GCSEs create a ‘forgotten third’ because those pupils who fall below this bar pay a high price in terms of reduced prospects in progression to further and higher education and to careers," it says.
The report argues that existing national curriculum subject entitlements up to the age of 14 should be extended to age 15, and that all academies should be forced to follow the national curriculum from the ages of 11 to 15.
Students would choose which type of courses and qualifications they wanted to pursue after age 15, based on the results of these new digital tests, as well as advice given to them by teachers and careers advisers.
Support for scrapping GCSEs has grown recently, with experts criticising the UK's "mutant exams system" in September last year, while in June, former education secretary Lord Baker called for the qualifications to go despite having introduced them.
And in October 2019, leading private schools mooted the idea of replacing GCSEs with digital assessments.
Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and a former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education, said: “GCSEs have been an important part of our education landscape for over three decades, but the unprecedented events of the last year have created a rare opportunity to consider how we can do things better in future.
"We should start by replacing high-stakes GCSEs with low-stakes digital assessments that act as a ‘staging post’ for pupils as they move through secondary education.
"The flexibility offered by these digital tests will also help to ‘Covid-proof’ our assessment system from any future external shocks.
“Putting hundreds of thousands of pupils through up to 30 hours of GCSE exams in order to sort them and their schools into successes and failures each year is a terrible use of precious time and money.
"While rigorous external tests can help to drive up educational standards, the continued presence of GCSEs prevents meaningful conversations about how we can build a world-class education system up to the age of 18, not 16.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest and most accurate way to measure pupils’ attainment, and GCSEs ensure pupils have a sound knowledge base that prepares them for further study or employment. We have no current plans to reform GCSEs.
“The impact of the pandemic means it won’t be possible to hold exams fairly this year, and the department is working closely with Ofqual and the sector on arrangements to make sure young people can receive a grade that reflects their hard work and enables them to progress.”