GCSEs and A levels are such long-standing fixtures of the educational landscape that in some ways it’s difficult to imagine life without them. GCSEs arrived on the scene in 1989, but the qualification is a spring chicken next to A levels, which were introduced in 1951.
But have these two great pillars of the English exam system had their day? That’s certainly the view of Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee.
Mr Halfon believes that the qualifications in their current form provide a narrow, Gradgrindian education, whereby exams are king and schools have no choice but to teach to the test.
Read: GCSEs now ‘redundant’, says Lord Baker
Need to know: What is the fourth industrial revolution?
Comment: 'End this addiction to high-stakes exams at 16'
To seize the opportunities presented by what Mr Halfon loves to call the “fourth industrial revolution”, he thinks we should scrap exams at 16 altogether, and replace A levels with a new “baccalaureate” that recognises academic and technical skills, as well as “personal development”. His proposals were backed by the NEU teaching union.
GCSEs: the skills vs knowledge debate
In making such a bold intervention, Mr Halfon has picked a side in the perennial skills versus knowledge debate. He thinks cultivating students’ communication, problem-solving and team-working abilities through a greater emphasis on skills will stand them in the best stead for a world transformed by artificial intelligence and automation.
Mr Halfon is not the first person to question the relevance of GCSEs. When GCSEs were introduced, many young people left education at 16, so it made sense for them to have a set of qualifications which they could use to evidence their academic achievements as they entered the world of work. Today, young people are legally required to stay in education or training until 18. Lord Baker, the Tory former education secretary who introduced GCSEs, has said they are, therefore, "redundant" and should be "quietly put to sleep".
While there is arguably no longer a compelling need for pupils to possess a set of qualifications at 16, Mr Halfon’s plan is likely to remain a pipe dream.
The fact of the matter is, we’ve been here before. A review of the 14-19 curriculum by Sir Mike Tomlinson in 2004 recommended a “unified framework of qualifications” to replace GCSEs and A levels with an overarching diploma. The proposals were ditched before the ink on the report was barely dry, because Tony Blair feared that messing with the GCSE and A-level brands could cost him the 2005 election.
Overhauling an exam system requires political will. And there can be little enough of that at the best of times. In 2019 – when the government is consumed by Brexit and schools haven't even finished digesting Michael Gove’s exam reforms – it's non-existent.
Indeed, the government has explicitly ruled out any further changes to qualifications or the curriculum for the rest of this Parliament.
While it’s not inconceivable that a future government could pick up Halfon’s ideas, the overwhelming likelihood is that GCSEs and A levels will be with us for some years to come.