GCSEs were designed as a nationally standardised measure of the outcomes of a child’s education at the point when most would leave. Now that all young people are expected to remain in education or training until the age of 18, the need for this "end point" measure has gone. This in itself is a reason to get rid of the qualifications, but there are more pressing and urgent problems than anachronism – GCSEs are downright damaging.
Relentless pressure on schools to produce passes means that responsibility for achievement lies with teachers, not children. This fosters a culture of passive dependency in children making transition into A-level or work problematic. Research by the British Chambers of Commerce finds that young people are leaving school are unfit for work. The BCC points to deficiencies in functional literacy and numeracy skills, in interpersonal and communication skills and in autonomy, creativity and initiative.
While one can challenge the right of business to assume that the role of school is to train children for work, we have to question what GCSEs qualify children for. The removal of speaking and listening from the assessed element of the English GCSE means that verbal communication suffers. A culture of spoon-feeding in schools removes agency and autonomy from pupils. The words “You don’t need this for the exam…” removes initiative. These practices are rife in a system focused on test outcomes over quality of experience.
But far worse than this is the impact they have on children. The day after he finished his GCSEs, my 16-year-old tipped all his books into the recycling bin.
“Ahhh,” he said “That felt like emptying my brain.”
For him, the point of school was to pass the tests. He had no respect for the knowledge he had gained. He literally dumped it in the bin. Research shows that little of the knowledge gained in a test transfers into proximal contexts such as the workplace. This might explain the BCC’s findings. But sadder than this is the loss of the love of learning.
We need to radically reconsider what it is to be educated. There is too much conflation between academic study of maths and English as subjects and the functional skills required for living. It is possible to get a child through the maths GCSE by prepping them with enough skill to gain points in each question without actually having the knowledge to complete it. Partial knowledge adds up to a C, benefiting no one. Separating numeracy and literacy into a functional skills qualification that all pupils take would then allow those with an interest in maths and English as academic pursuits to take them as subjects in their own rights.
A relentless focus on key stage 4 in 11-16 schools means that in many cases children in Years 7-9 receive too little attention and challenge. Schools often plan backwards from GCSE criteria, resulting in Years 7 and 8 being taught content they studied in Years 3 and 4 at primary school. Planning in this way can lead to learned passivity, lowering resilience and autonomy. Without the GCSE syllabus as a marker, teachers could really foster a love of their subjects, stretching children way beyond the confines of an exam.
In addition to all this, we have an examination system cracking under the pressure. Undergraduates with no experience of teaching are marking papers as exam boards struggle to recruit examiners. Team leaders tell me that they have no confidence in the reliability of results. We can have little trust in the marking of exams any more and yet we put all our faith and the future hopes and dreams of our young people in them.
I have spoken to many who accept the argument that GCSEs are obsolete, but who make the case that it’s “too hard” to change the system – how would employers or colleges know what a child had done? But it would be possible for each child to have a portfolio from school with functional skills tests results, examples of work, personal statements and references and these would be used to progress. And besides, when was it good enough to say “we know it’s poor but it’s too hard to change” – what kind of aspirational thinking is that?
Read Tim Oates' case for GCSEs
What are your thoughts on exams at 16? Make your own voice heard by taking TES' GCSE survey