Stepping stones to guaranteed success?

The GCSE is undergoing a radical overhaul 20 years after it replaced the O-level. Darren Evans asks if it is the end of the exam in Wales

The GCSE as we know it in England and Wales will cease to exist at the end of this academic year.

Greatly maligned during its short history, especially for the introduction of home coursework, it was always going to be difficult to compete with public affection for the illustrious O-level.

But for how long will the new-look GCSE be around?

TES Cymru has learned that the Welsh education hierarchy may have their sights set on something more revolutionary. It seems the jury is out on the GCSE. The main difference with the modified exam being introduced this September is that 90 per cent of subjects will become modular.

The other is that coursework done at home will be scrapped.

Teachers will have the option of starting a course one year early and deciding when their pupils are ready to be assessed: either after teaching each module, or at the end. It will mean that pupils will have another bite of the cherry if they fail one unit. Some exam boards will allow schools to start courses in Year 9 and complete just one year later. But this in itself is already causing controversy.

Critics of the new modular system say it is fail-proof and there will be more record exam results. Supporters say it will allow students the chance to prepare or study longer for A-levels, a very different exam to that which they are used to with the GCSE.

"If it is a given that schools wish as many youngsters as possible to succeed, we are providing an assessment structure that is desirable," said Derec Stockley, director of examinations and assessment at exam board WJEC.

Arthur Parker, assistant curriculum director for GCSE at the exam board, believes progress will come with the greater flexibility of the new exam. "The intention of the new GCSE is to enable teachers to stagger assessment," he said. "If they want to start them early they can do - it will be up to them."

But WJEC, along with other exam boards, issues one stipulation. Forty per cent of modules must be taken at the end of the academic year during the traditional exam season. Pupils will still have to wait to get their results.

Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres School in Penarth, says the beauty of the modular approach is in pupil incentive. "There is the motivation to learn throughout the course rather than just for the exam, particularly for boys who respond well to short term goals," he said.

Coursework is also being replaced by controlled classroom assessments, which he supports.

"Ending home-based coursework will address concerns over the exam's integrity," said Mr Lightman. "It will enable people to be assessed as they go along, but under controlled conditions. It doesn't depend on whether parents can help or you have the internet at home."

Certain subject specifications have been reviewed by WJEC and brought up to date to make them more relevant to the revamped GCSE. For example, history will include the study of terrorism.

But the exam board has not been as radical in altering the specifications as some English exam boards. Overall, it is taking a more traditional approach. Freestyle DJ-ing and rapping in the music GCSE, and widened religious studies to include Buddhism, Sikhism and humanism, are all on offer elsewhere.

The new GCSE specifications from next September (2009) include all subject areas except for science, in which new courses started in 2006.

The core subjects of English, Welsh, maths and IT will be revamped for first teaching in 2010.

The Assembly government consultation on the criteria for these subjects runs until the end of this month. Teachers and academics are, however, generally supportive.

Professor David Egan, director of the institute of applied education research at UWIC, said: "I think it's a step in the right direction. If you undertake a unit of work why not be assessed there and then, when you are ready?

"The whole concern is that nobody will fail. Well, why should they fail? Why can't we accept success?"

But Professor Egan thinks the days of the GCSE in Wales are numbered. In fact, the former educational advisor to Jane Davidson, the first education minister in the Assembly government, argues that Wales should move towards abolishing the GCSE, as well as A-levels and other vocational qualifications. He would replace them with the Welsh bac, a qualification he believes the rest of the world is looking upon with envy.

Writing in this week's TES Cymru, Professor Egan argues that overhauling the GCSE and other qualifications would end "the lunacy of testing at ages 15, 16, 17 and 18". He also advocates the demise of the GCSE in England, be it under their distinctive vocational Diploma system. However, if Wales goes it alone, he hopes students should not be disadvantaged.

"To take the lead, or even to go ahead alone, would of course be challenging and radical," he warns.


Percentage of pupils who achieved five or more GCSEs grade A*-C or vocational equivalent in Wales:

1998: 45.9

1999: 47.5

2000: 49.1

2001: 49.8

2002: 50.5

2003: 51.1

2004: 51.4

2005: 52.2

2006: 53.8

2007: 54.2

2008: not yet available


1970s: The Schools Council discussed merging the general certificate of education (GCE) O-level and certificate of secondary education (CSE) to form a new single exam. (A grade 1 at CSE was considered an O-level pass). A merged GCSE was planned by Labour Education Secretary Shirley Williams, but blocked by the Conservative government after Labour lost the 1979 election.

1984: Conservative education secretary Sir Keith Joseph approved the merger and announced the new GCSE would start in 1986. He said the new system would be tougher but clearer and fairer.

1986: Lessons for GCSEs started, with the first awards given in 1988. Many teachers were initially sceptical about the inclusion of coursework.

1991: Prime Minister John Major asked the School Examinations and Assessment Council, the first statutory regulatory body, to limit the acceptable proportion of coursework.

1994: A* grade was introduced.

1997: Labour elected with a promise of devolution to Wales. Referendum results in a narrow Yes vote.

1998: Government of Wales Act creates the National Assembly for Wales, with the Welsh Assembly Government created in 1999, taking control of education policy but not pay and conditions.

1998: GCSE targets were set for the first time by the UK government: that by 2002, at least half of 16-year-olds would be achieving five good passes (equivalent to the old GCE level).

2000: A new challenge was set relating to each school: that at least 25 per cent of its pupils would have five good GCSE passes by 2006.

2002: The first lessons for vocational GCSEs started, with first awards to be made in 2004. The word vocational was dropped in 2004.

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