Education secretary Gavin Williamson is absolutely right to scrap GCSE exams this June. It would be grossly unfair to expect students to sit two-hour exams in eight or nine subjects when some have lost six or seven months of teaching time, while others may have lost just a few weeks.
Any exam system needs a level playing field, and Covid-19 has destroyed that. What students have been through means that the poorest and most disadvantaged have suffered a serious loss in their education – which, for some of them, may never be caught up.
The only alternative to exams is teacher assessment, but this, too, has its problems, as few teachers would have had courses in teacher assessment at training college. Other problems with it are favouritism, grade inflation and inconsistency, for schools realise there is no downside to grade inflation since they know other schools will be doing the same, and they will not want to lose a comparative advantage.
GCSEs 2021: A new system of assessment
This year, I hope we will begin to develop a standard system of assessment based on four elements. The first is the teacher who marks the essay or corrects the maths mistake, and who, therefore, knows for each of their students whether they are doing well in maths or poorly in French.
The second element would be to support teacher assessment with simple tests taken in the school, but not under exam conditions. I remember in my primary school that is exactly what happened: we had tests in class and the results appeared in my end-of-term report.
Thirdly, it would be sensible to reintroduce some coursework. In University Technical Colleges, the colleges I am promoting, students work on employer-led and employer-devised projects – for example, designing and making a piston pump – and teachers assess each student’s progress. This could be applied to certain academic subjects like English, history and geography.
Fourthly, there must be some moderation. That could be provided by another teacher, and it would be helpful if at some stage each student was interviewed. There are oral examinations for foreign languages, and it is a quick and easy way of determining the standard of a student.
So I would hope that we will develop a system of assessment and coursework, supported by tests and moderation.
The advantages of abandoning GCSEs
The academic year 2021-22 will be dominated by catch-up, and so far only 100,000 students have applied for extra tutoring. I fail to understand why a longer school day, shorter holidays and even Saturday morning teaching have been abandoned.
In this next year, we do not have to worry about the brighter students: they will come through, come what may. I am more worried about the 35 per cent who do not get above grade 4 at GCSE, many of whom will leave with only two GCSEs. It would be very unfair to expect them to sit GCSEs in the summer of 2022.
We are the only country in the world that subjects its 16-year-olds to an exacting series of exams – a process that produces a great deal of anxiety and stress. My grandfather left school at 12 to go to work, and my father at 16 to join the civil service. I left at 18 to go to university. Today, schooling and training exists from 4 to 18 for everyone.
In 1950, I took the predecessor of GCSEs – the school certificate – which was necessary because 93 per cent left school at 16 and needed a certificate to show to their employer whether they had gained a distinction, credit or pass. Today, 93 per cent go on to education and training at 16, and only 7 per cent leave. There is no longer any need for a leaving certificate at 16.
I think the days of GCSE at 16 – which I introduced – are numbered. One of the advantages of abandoning GCSEs is that a great expense will be saved, and schools will be able to spend the cash on extra teachers, additional equipment and more visits to employers.
For students, the really significant record will come at 18, in academic and technical subjects. That means not just the number of A levels, but a much wider choice of technical, digital, creative and artistic qualifications. This could become a technical baccalaureate, assessed by tests, a student’s three-year record and teachers’ assessment.
We do need an exam system for the 21st century, and a new pathway to that may have been established by universities this year. The history faculty at the University of Cambridge abandoned its three-hour, sit-down handwritten exams, and instead asked students to write two essays on their computer, in their room, where they also had access to books.
These essays were taken into account, together with the student’s achievement over the three years, in order to determine their degree. I suspect many universities will continue with this interesting and innovative arrangement, at least for academic subjects.
Lord Baker of Dorking was education secretary from 1986 to 1989