It may be time to ditch GCSEs and dust down Tomlinson

GCSEs seem increasingly archaic - Victorian, even. We have an 'oven-ready' replacement ready to go in the form of New Labour's abandoned Tomlinson reforms

Geoff Barton

School uniform: Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, questions whether schools really need branded blazers

In Bristol this week, at the annual conference of the Girls’ Schools Association, headteacher Rose Hardy used some vivid imagery to describe GCSEs. Here’s what she said:

“I think many heads would say that in 30 years’ time, maybe sooner, we’ll look back and say what we’re doing now with young people is the equivalent of what the Victorians did – building their school rooms with windows so high up pupils couldn’t look out, and putting them in dunce caps”.

The report of the debate about GCSEs led to an editorial in The Times under the headline: "Tested to Destruction". The newspaper said that these "troubled" exams no longer served a useful purpose:

“Scrapping GCSEs would free up time that could be spent working towards richer qualifications at 18. At present it encourages schools to teach pupils to tick boxes rather than to educate them imaginatively.”

It’s good that the leaders of some of our longest established independent schools are leading the drive for qualification reform. It’s good that one of our oldest newspapers is doing the same.

After all, as I’ve written before, an examination designed in and for a different era, is looking increasingly irrelevant. As technology takes on so much of the heavy lifting in other parts of our lives, surely the days of sports halls being filled with old school desks, armies of invigilators, and exam storerooms akin to Fort Knox is an anachronism.

Glimpse into the future

The son of a friend of mine has just finished his five-year medical training at a prestigious university in England. He’s now a junior doctor in the Midlands. So, during that five-year training, how many formal examinations did he sit?

The answer: none. He was assessed, of course. But all of the assessment was via online testing, which means candidates could be sitting in the same room, at adjacent computers, answering personalised questions that make cheating impossible.

It’s a glimpse into a future which needs to arrive in schools.

ASCL has already proposed one radical alternative to the woefully old-fangled GCSE English language qualification. We set up a Commission of Inquiry to look at how we could improve the prospects of the "forgotten third" of 16-year-olds who every year fall short of achieving the grade 4 "standard pass" in GCSE English and maths.

Its answer was the introduction of a new type of qualification: a Passport in English, and in time maths, which students would be able to take between the ages of 15 and 19 at the point of readiness, and which would enable them to develop their skills over time.

The commission also looked forward to a more radical appraisal of the GCSE system in its entirety as well as the accompanying paraphernalia of school performance tables:

“The government should establish a cross-sector review of England’s GCSE exam system which is currently rooted in testing and assessment designed for a different era; and, in parallel, review the current high-stakes school accountability systems which are outmoded for students, parents and schools today.”

Long way to go

It is a sign of how far we have to go that the government isn’t currently prepared to even countenance the relatively modest proposal for a Passport in English and maths, let alone an overhaul of GCSEs.

The Department for Education’s response to the publication of the commission’s report was a somewhat confusing statement that said: “The education secretary has made clear that he won’t be changing the national curriculum, allowing teachers the freedom to focus on their teaching.”

This was from a government which has spent the past decade changing every single GCSE and A-level qualification in a hare-brained splurge of reform which has had precisely the opposite effect of allowing teachers to focus on teaching.

Of course, politicians on all sides have long regarded GCSEs and A-levels as an article of faith. Way back in 2004, the then Labour government had a golden opportunity to change all this with a widely-supported set of reforms from former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson.

He proposed a diploma that would replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications, made up of combinations of modules and taken at different levels. In short, it was a progressive unifying qualification which would end the divide between academic and vocational courses – yes, that divide that politicians are always vowing to end without actually ever doing so. It would also allow a wider set of skills, aptitudes and experiences to be showcased, including the employability skills craved by employers.

Going for gold

But Labour blinked at the last moment, preferring to stick with the "gold standard" of GCSEs and A-levels rather than grasping the golden opportunity offered by the Tomlinson reforms.

And the rest, as they say, is history, with the current government continuing to use the phrase "gold standard" as though that makes our current exams immutable, while for good measure applying the same epithet to the planned T-level qualifications before they have even been launched.

Ho hum.

So, to borrow Boris Johnson’s tiresomely repeated refrain about having an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, we do, in fact, have an ‘oven-ready’ set of reforms to replace the current GCSE and A-level system. The work has been done. It is ready to go.

All that is needed is a bit of dusting off and updating of Tomlinson’s proposals, and we could actually do something about a system which we all know doesn’t serve well the needs of all our students and creates a lot of very unfortunate cliff edges.

If we ever get round to doing something about the “terrible treadmill” highlighted by headteacher Rose Hardy, then a good starting point might be to go back to the future.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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