Loosen the straitjacket of exams;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
The GCSE has had its day and should now make way for a more modular approach, allowing all pupils from 14 to 18 to achieve their full potential. So argue Vivian Anthony and John Dunford

YOUR RECENT editorial (TES, August 27) noted with disapproval our contention that the GCSE had served its time and should be abolished. It may seem strange to be advocating the end of an examination which has been one of the success stories of recent educational history, increasing accessibility and improving attainment consistently over a decade.

All exam systems mirror the age in which they were founded, although GCSE was introduced at least 10 years too late to reflect the change from grammar to comprehensive schools. By promoting the debate about GCSE now, we want to be sure that the system is not ended 10 years late as well.

In the early years of the next century, nearly all our young people will remain in full-time education until the age of 18. So the emphasis ought to be on an assessment structure which enables people to build a portfolio of qualifications from 14 to 18 and through higher education and lifelong learning.

The biggest growth in education in the last decade has been in the exam industry. Children are now committed to national exams at seven, 11, 14, 16 and 18. The range of exams post-16 has been expanded to include general national vocational qualifications, other vocational exams have been consolidated under the NVQ label and students have been encouraged to take AS as well as A- levels.

The number of subjects taken by candidates at GCSE has increased and GNVQ and half-courses have been introduced at key stage 4.

There is no other country in the developed world which has so many exams or spends such a high proportion of its education budget on this activity. Nor do other countries have a system with such high stakes - politically and educationally. There are plenty of other ways in which schools can be held accountable.

While the Government will point to improving results as evidence of rising standards and as a justification for more of the same, the time has come to consider whether the costs outweigh the benefits, especially for the GCSE.

GCSE is of doubtful value to those at top end of the academic ability spectrum. It holds back those who could move on earlier to advanced level work. Many schools now report a 100 per cent pass rate and in many selective schools all the pupils pass at least five subjects at A to C.

The number of candidates obtaining A* or A in all their subjects is steadily increasing. The use of GCSE grades as a guide for university selectors will soon be replaced by the AS grades at the end of the following year. If universities could devise a system of post-qualification applications, the GCSE grades would become even less relevant.

Nor is the exam serving well those at the other end of the ability range, who are branded as failures if they have not achieved C grades by the age of 16.

One bugbear of the exams system is age-relatedness; this makes it structurally difficult for pupils to take exams out of their chronological year group. This problem is reinforced by the way the Government collects information for performance tables, in which results achieved outside the age group are not published.

Much could be done with pound;100 million-plus which is spent on the GCSE and related costs, such as school administration. Huge amounts of time are diverted from teaching to examining. Many pupils go on exam leave early in May of their GCSE year and do not reappear until September.

In place of GCSE, there should be a qualifications framework from age 14, based on a modular approach, with opportunities for credit accumulation and transfer, and much greater reliance on moderated teacher assessment.

There would no longer be the sharp division between the academic and the vocational. Students would take the modules when they are ready for them - some earlier, some later - without the spectre of failure if they have not passed by a certain age.

Schools have long argued that internal assessment is more effective and the external moderation would preserve national standards. Bright students could begin advanced level courses a year earlier and slower learners could complete a full set of GCSE-standard modules by 17 or 18.

Far from removing a major academic motivator at key stage 4, as your editorial suggested, our proposals would increase motivation for young people at all levels of ability.

Such an approach, into which the current post-16 reforms would fit comfortably, would open the way for a genuine 14-19 curriculum which will facilitate sufficient breadth of study while allowing students to concentrate in depth on the subjects of their choice. This will produce more flexibility in the curriculum structure, which even David Blunkett recognises as a straitjacket for many.

Vivian Anthony is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and John Dunford is general

secretary of the Secondary Heads


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