Exclusive: AI may replace GCSEs in top private schools

Elite independent schools in talks about using programme of digital assessments they believe could supplant GCSEs

digital learning

Top independent schools are in talks with a digital company about creating a new  system of assessment that could replace GCSEs, Tes can reveal.

They believe the artificial intelligence technology, allowing online teaching and assessment, can provide higher education or employers a more accurate, "granular" summary of what 16-year-olds can do than traditional exams.

However, universities have already expressed some concerns about the development.


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Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) – representing elite independent schools – told Tes: “We are looking into creating a summative broad assessment through technology – it would be a detailed portfolio of what 16-year-olds can do. It would assess them at a granular level.

“It would really be a type of precision education. We could aggregate this into a report for universities or employers.

“There’s a good question about whether the current programme serves all pupils. If [the new technology] works this could replace GCSE.

"It could be one way of doing a national test at 16 without the panoply of GCSEs and everything that is involved in it.”

Some independent schools, such as Sevenoaks School and Bedales, have already revised their curricula to cut down on the number of GCSEs studied, replacing these with their own bespoke courses.

However, speaking at a panel on university admissions at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in London this week, some university staff cautioned against in-school qualifications.

But the HMC believes the system could also benefit state schools and provide a means of helping the "forgotten third" – the third of pupils who currently leave school without a grade 4 GCSE in maths or English.

“You could have a report where it tells you, ‘This pupil can’t write grammatical English but they can communicate brilliantly verbally, they would make an excellent salesman’ – and employers could see that from the report,” Mr Buchanan said.

He added that GCSEs no longer always made sense in an era where pupils did not leave school at 16, and that for some pupils, the revised qualifications introduced in 2017 were often "very dry".

"And then for some pupils they are too difficult," he continued. "This is the problem with any one-size-fits-all system."

Mr Buchanan said if the digital portfolio was successful, HMC could take it to the Department for Education as a model for state schools to follow instead of GCSEs and other end-of-stage assessments. 

“It would be a combination of artificial intelligence and class teaching – it wouldn’t replace teaching, because teaching will always be a personal job that is about relationships and making those connections in the classroom,” he said. “It might even be a way of dealing with the teacher shortage. Teachers would be freed up to follow their passions with a class.”

Mr Buchanan compared the idea to what happens under the early years framework, he said the new digital report would be used to continuously track what pupils could do.

“We already amass all this information,” he said.

The HMC envisages the new assessment model as a  "parallel experiment” that would not immediately replace the GCSE.

"We are using our curriculum and assessment freedoms [in the private sector] to explore alternatives," Mr Buchanan said.

“GCSEs are a low hurdle, first shift for universities, so probably they would be relaxed.”

But Bella Malins, head of access and admissions at University College London, said that more independent schools abandoning GCSEs to take up in-school testing could make it harder to assess students’ prior academic achievement.

“It would certainly be a challenge for us,” she told the HMC conference panel. “We still use GCSEs quite heavily in a lot of selection for our programmes.

"While we do obviously take a lot of qualifications internationally, we’re always concerned where they’re school-led qualifications – a lot of European countries do in-school exams and the quality is variable. We would prefer national exams with some quality assurance.”

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