3 reasons GCSEs need to change – and 3 alternatives

Our students deserve better than the national disgrace GCSEs have become, write three founder members of a movement aiming to radically reform the exam system

Bill Lucas, Peter Hyman and Al McConville

GCSE exams 2021 reform

GCSEs used to be necessary. When they were introduced in the 1980s, many youngsters left the education system at 16 and needed a qualification at the end of their school career. Education, understandably, has changed in the decades since these tests were introduced, which begs a simple question: why has our exam system not changed with it? The stasis has allowed these necessary exams to mutate into a national disgrace. 

Even the architect of GCSEs, former education secretary Lord Baker, thinks their days are numbered now the school leaving age has been raised to 18. He has been campaigning for a number of years for the qualification to be "quietly put to sleep". His views are shared by a growing number of influential figures in England.

The annual trip to a school gymnasium with a pencil and biro to take an examination has become an anachronism. Work needs to begin in earnest to fix our exam system. Enter our new movement, Rethinking Assessment, which aims to do just that. 

Made up of a unique alliance of independent and state school headteachers, employers and researchers, Rethinking Assessment will be making the case for change through case studies, analysis and evidence in a range of media; and suggesting workable solutions, practical ideas and approaches to prototype a fairer system.

Three reasons why we need to change GCSEs

1. GCSEs are unfair

Under the current system, we have allowed GCSEs to stray from its original ideal of providing criterion-referenced grading of all students' efforts, often with a significant element of teacher-rated coursework. What we have instead is an exam that routinely fails a third of young people every year. The government’s own statistics show that in 2019, 67.1 per cent achieved grade 4 or above; in 2018, the figure was 66.6 per cent. Annually, some 190,000 young people will learn the meaning of the word failure. This is an affront to social justice.

Not only are GCSEs inequitable, they are also damaging to young people’s wellbeing at a time when England is home to some of the world’s unhappiest teenagers. As a member of our group, University of Cambridge academic Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, puts it: "It has become increasingly clear that holding high-stakes national exams in the form of GCSEs during a period of life characterised by increased vulnerability to mental health problems no longer makes sense, and that other forms of assessment might be better aligned with  adolescent development." 

GCSEs, which are skewed towards disciplinary knowledge, are also unable to acknowledge the full range of young peoples’ capabilities. These exams effectively stop schools from providing a well-rounded education for their pupils. They do not value creativity, collaborative problem-solving, oracy, important aspects of the development of character, resilience and social and emotional learning, as well as other practical and applied learning. This seems perverse, given these kinds of capabilities are the very ones employers need, according to the World Economic Forum.

2. GCSEs are unreliable

Don’t take our word for it. Earlier this month, Dame Glenys Stacey, acting head of Ofqual, told the Commons Education Select Committee that exams "are reliable to one grade either way". In other words, if you got a grade 4 at GCSE it could equally have been a 3 or a 5.

In fact, the reliability of grading varies considerably even in a good year; marking is not a precise science. Ofqual’s own research in 2018 shows that 50 per cent of grades at GCSE may have been wrongly awarded in some subjects.

The percentage of students receiving grade 4 and above in GCSE this summer increased by 8.9 per cent this summer, according to Ofqual. Interestingly, even if this were grade inflation, it is within the kind of variation that can occur naturally every year.

3. GCSEs are a waste of public money

In 2017-2018 just over 4.5 million GCSE certificates were awarded at an average cost of £37.30. The total cost? A whopping £173 million.

To put that in context, that’s the equivalent of an extra 5,000 classroom teachers being spent on a "leaving exam" that no longer reflects the school leaving age.

Exploring alternatives to GCSEs

Rethinking Assessment is actively looking for fairer and more relevant ways of tracking students’ progress throughout their time at school. Its members are already experimenting with alternatives to GCSE. 

This year, we need to do two things: provide high-quality moderated work that shows the standards current exam students are achieving and try to use this moment to start thinking about how we can trial alternative means of recognising a more expansive range of students’ strengths.

We don't have to start from scratch, either. There is much to learn from countries across the world who are pioneering new approaches. Here is just a flavour.

1. Create your own Character Scorecard

You may well have your own approach to explicitly developing character. If so, this year is a perfect opportunity to try the VIA Institute on Character Inventory of Strengths. Or you could explore the KIPP Character Scorecard, which focuses on zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity, and is another good repository of resources developed with Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab.

2. Adapt the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) for use in key stage 4

The EPQ, equivalent to 50 per cent of an A level, is an opportunity for students to undertake an extended project with guidance and support from staff. Its assessment takes the form of, for example, a musical or dramatical composition, a report or artefact backed up with paperwork or an extended piece of writing. The Warriner School has already adapted this kind of approach to key stage 3 and there are nationally available examined options currently still available.

3. Go comparative

You could dip your toe into the world of comparative judgement. Comparative judgement assumes that people are better at making comparisons between pieces of work than at making absolute judgements about quality. No More Marking has developed software for teachers that you can try.

Here are some other possibilities to look at:

There are many more examples schools can learn from here.

Bill Lucas is professor of learning at the University of Winchester and co-chair of the Pisa 2021 test of creative thinking. Peter Hyman is co-director of Big Education and co-founder and first headteacher of School 21. Al McConville is director of learning and innovation at Bedales School and one of the architects of the Bedales Assessed Curriculum. Together, they are founding members of the advisory group for Rethinking Assessment. Rethinking Assessment is launching this week and can be found on Twitter @rethinkassessmt.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Bill Lucas, Peter Hyman and Al McConville

Latest stories