'The case for keeping GCSEs is dubious at best'

Tougher GCSEs have been devised when there’s no need for a national qualification at that age, says Bernard Trafford

GCSEs: Do we really need a national qualification for 16-year-olds, asks Bernard Trafford

The new, “tougher” GCSE is already proving insufficiently challenging for the very brightest.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, reports that leading selective independent schools are finding that students gain far more top grades than expected: he cited one where 57 per cent of grades awarded were 9. He’s not advocating it, but reckons there may soon be calls for an additional grade 10.

It’s no surprise. The same happened previously at A level and with the old GCSE, as a result of either rising achievement or grade inflation, according to your point of view. In both cases, A* was added above A, not to mention the A-double-star (A^, “A hat”) in further maths GCSE. 

GCSE is the successor of O level, CSE and, far back in time, the School Leaving Certificate. Nowadays education (not necessarily in school) theoretically continues for all young people beyond 16. So it could be argued that exams at that age provide little useful information, except for the government to compare one school with another. 

Moreover, as currently constituted, they tell the “forgotten” third of 16-year-olds – those gaining less than a grade 4 in maths and English – that what they’ve worked for is worthless.

GCSEs: Cranking up the pressure

We’re assured that GCSE helps universities to discriminate at the top end. Indeed, it may allow selector universities to identify potential in candidates from less-favourable backgrounds as they (rightly) seek to ensure that disadvantage doesn’t prevent talented students from winning places. 

I’ve never been convinced by universities’ claims that any single qualification is essential to their selection processes. When Curriculum 2000 ushered in the AS level as the halfway point to A level, universities declared that they would be of no use whatsoever for selection. 

By contrast, when AS levels were phased out recently, universities lamented the loss of a vital indicator. 

I guess they’ve now returned to looking at GCSEs, so ambitious students will continue to aim for maximum top grades at GCSE. And when someone decides that the brightest are gaining “too many” 9s, the demand will come for a 10 (or 11, or even 12), cranking up the pressure on them a full two years before they’ll progress to university.

Selector universities do need some measure of prior attainment, but only while they perpetuate our barmy system of candidates’ applying before A level and holding conditional offers – except when some institutions drive a coach and horses through their own system by making unconditional offers

Applications to university after A levels

That problem could be solved at a stroke by a system of post-qualification application – in other words, letting candidates apply for university after they’ve got their A-level results, as students do successfully in the rest of the world. 

Policymakers and admissions tutors will throw up their hands in horror: how can they possibly get it all done between exams in June and university term starting in October? They can’t, of course, which is why they need to find the collective courage and vision to stretch that period by rethinking the entire academic year. That calls for big change, not mere tinkering.

But, until that happens – and I’m not holding my breath – the race for top GCSE grades will continue. 

The problem lies in the GCSE itself. A new, tougher exam has been devised for 16-year-olds when there’s no longer any clear reason for a national qualification at that age. It’s the wrong age and the wrong purpose for that exam, and the wrong exam for that unclear purpose.

So, before we consider revising or adding to the grades awarded at GCSE, we should revisit the whole rationale for the exam’s existence at that age. It’s dubious at best. 

Designing and introducing the new GCSE before even asking whether the qualification is still needed has been a matter of putting the cart before the horse. Let’s not now further tinker with the horse’s harness, nor buff up the brasses, when we don’t even know where it’s going.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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