Why we must scrap GCSEs: 4 ways to form a better system

Sarah Fletcher, the high mistress of St Paul's Girls' School in London and a member of the HMC, offers thoughts on better ways young people can be assessed than out-dated GCSEs

Sarah Fletcher

Coronavirus: The government should retain an element of teacher assessment in GCSEs and A levels, says Patrick Roach, new leader of the NASUWT

Everything has changed over the past few months.

We have put students from across the world in the same classrooms, safeguarded new ways of working and shared resources and online platforms.  

Most extraordinary of all, teachers have helped in the awarding of grades and we have cancelled all assessments from key stage 1 to key stage 5. 

Imagining the unimaginable is something we should do more often! And what better place to start than with the curriculum?

The modern world demands it  

A modern curriculum needs to guide young people effectively through the pitfalls and opportunities of modern communication – from digital literacy to coding – or we risk the subjection of future generations to the demagogy of a cyber world. 

Global affairs need foregrounding to engage young people in respectful, informed debate and teachers need to be free to able to engage properly with the issues we face, such as discrimination and racism, and explore the rich interconnectedness of different subjects and ideas.

All told, an imaginative curriculum would interweave the old with the new, offering alternative ways for students to analyse information, explore ideas and present their work. 

But our current system does none of this.

An outdated system

Where is the time for creativity, curiosity and complex problem-solving? How do we develop skills in discussion, presentation and debate? Where is the freedom to respond to the particular needs of different communities? 

Why do we test so rigorously at 16+ when students leave school at 18? Why do we narrow the curriculum so dramatically at KS5 when flexibility and breadth matter so much? 

In short, the road map we have chosen for the last 40 years has long since served its purpose.

Standardisation, accountability, and assessment have become our masters rather than servants as the drive to standardise grades and outcomes from KS1 to KS5 has produced mark schemes that discourage initiative and independence of thought. 

The weight of learning, particularly at KS4, limits time and opportunity to engage meaningfully with complex problems, to explore the interconnectedness of the world or to develop the many interests and aptitudes the students themselves possess. 

Scrapping GCSEs

This is why I, alongside heads at both state and private schools, are calling for GCSEs in their current form to be scrapped.

This is not a vague, headline-grabbing idea, but something vital and necessary.  We need to begin our journey now to address the educational inequalities of a post-lockdown world.

As a fundamental, we should look to something more akin to a baccalaureate-style assessment at KS5 and post-qualification application (PQA) to study beyond school, to remove the need for high-stakes testing at 16+.

A new approach could take on much simpler measurements, perhaps pass, merit and distinction, with the opportunity to try again and learn from your mistakes. It suggests a portfolio of achievement across your school career rather than one big bang exam at the end. 

Assessment would become a positive process that underpins the lifelong growth of knowledge and skills.  This would be a major change of course – but we have plenty of alternative models to draw inspiration from. 

Four ideas

1. Internal assessment / external moderation

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is an interesting model.  There is no syllabus. The mark scheme offers an overarching framework within which to assess the quality of each submission.

It is internally assessed, externally moderated, and recognised by universities as robust and meaningful.

It encourages students to come up with very different responses, from a research project to a production or artefact, and has resulted in some of the most rigorous pieces of work I have ever seen. 

Students learn how to define a question, to research, create, present and evaluate their ideas while the presentation element encourages confidence in public speaking and oracy. The flipped learning of individual projects and presentations has the added virtue of informing others in a group of topics outside their areas of knowledge or expertise. 

The EPQ exists as a model at KS4 and KS5 and could be developed in a number of ways to liberate assessment and encourage depth in learning. 

It could, for example, become a framework for assessing aspects of the curriculum that are open-ended such as global affairs.

It could be adapted to create a parallel qualification in creative methodologies; complex problem solving, creative thinking, entrepreneurship, leadership, and collaboration. Such a qualification could be used to encourage detailed understanding of technology, digital applications and coding.

It could also help to bridge the gap between academic and technical and professional courses.

2. School assessment

Comparative judgement is a new and innovative approach to assessment. Instead of grading answers according to a given mark scheme, scripts are marked according to the quality of response. 

Exemplar material, top, middle, bottom, set the standard and numbers of markers pool their reactions to reach a final grade. 

In this model, consortia of schools could work together, perhaps alongside universities and other organisations, to create and moderate their own courses.  

The potential for cross-sector collaboration is significant and could help to democratise education, particularly if we can harness the online platforms of lockdown to bring students and teachers together in much more efficient and effective ways.

What better time to trial such an approach than summer 2021?

3. External examination

Mathematics, English and science perhaps need to remain externally examined, at least in part, as a practical response to concerns about educational standards and content coverage in key subjects. 

Fewer external examinations might improve their quality, however. The savings made on multiple subject entries would justify higher costs to schools and therefore greater investment in the design and moderation of more imaginative courses and assessment. 

Mathematics could respond more directly to preparation for life beyond school – from understanding bills to use in sports analytics. We might imagine a central core with opportunity to develop beyond it.

4. School transcript

Education should serve a higher purpose than just assessment outcomes – it must also promote the attributes of a caring, respectful and responsible society.

The IB has interesting approaches to service and work-related activities from which we could learn.  The Duke of Edinburgh Award, too, is rich in skills and learning. 

Both could be adapted to broaden the curriculum and to lend objectivity to a school-based transcript which could sit alongside other measurements of achievement and skills. 

TED-style talks from research teams at universities, online courses, webinars or skype interviews with professional mentors could provide genuine enrichment.

Better links with schools at home and abroad could deepen linguistic skills and cultural understanding, while modern communications, as we have just discovered, could facilitate the development of collaborative networks and promote partnership across different sectors.

In short, a new approach to assessment and learning could pave the way to a renaissance in creativity, generating a more playful and personal engagement in learning, break down barriers and generate the inspiration and encouragement that all young people deserve.  

Sarah Fletcher is the high mistress of St Paul's GirlsSchool in London and a member of the HMC

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