For most pupils who collected their GCSE results yesterday, the exam certificates in those dreaded brown envelopes will be seen as a summary of their five years at high school.
However, for a small but growing number, yesterday’s grades are just one part of a much bigger picture. Alongside a handful of GCSEs, they collected a separate set of results for do-it-yourself qualifications invented by their schools as an alternative to the main exams.
Several private schools are taking this approach after growing tired of what they see as “dry” GCSE content and “unadventurous” exams. And leading figures expect more to follow suit.
Mike Buchanan, the chair-elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading private schools, said: “GCSEs and IGCSEs will probably remain as the main diet at 16, but an increasing number of schools will say, ‘We’re not going to bother with them, except in the core subjects’.”
'[GCSEs are] a poor means of preparation for further study and work'
Mr Buchanan is head of Ashford School, a private all-through school in Kent, where he is hoping to introduce his own alternative qualifications. “Sixty per cent of my teaching staff have a master’s degree or above,” he said. “They could easily design courses that would be really well suited to the pupils that we teach.
“If I’ve got someone of enormous ability and passion and they’re being asked to teach the Second World War yet again, why wouldn’t I use them in a different way?”
Tim Jones, deputy head of Sevenoaks School, an independent Kent secondary that introduced its own qualifications in 2012, said the case for DIY qualifications at 16 was clear.
“Nationally, GCSEs were designed to be school-leaving certificates, and now that no one leaves school at 16 they’re kind of redundant,” he argued.
The school’s own qualifications, known as Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSCs), replace GCSEs in subjects including English literature, drama, classics and robotics.
The school doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to GCSEs, which it describes on its website as “uninspiring and lacking in rigour.”
“They have tended to encourage a mindset defined only by the limitations of unadventurous examinations, and as a result a poor means of preparation for further study at university, as well as the workplace,” the site claims.
But there are hurdles for schools that try to break free from the stranglehold of GCSEs. The first is that universities still consider pupils’ GCSE grades in some cases. This has limited the development of alternatives at Sevenoaks School, where pupils take seven GCSEs alongside three or four SSCs.
“We’re talking seriously about developing our own alternatives to GCSEs in more subjects,” Mr Jones said. “But while universities are still paying some attention to what’s going on at the end of Year 11, we won’t move away fully.”
The same is true at Bedales School, a independent school in Hampshire, which this year is marking the 10th anniversary of its own GCSE alternatives, Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs).
According to headteacher Keith Budge, pupils take five GCSEs in the core academic subjects because universities require these qualifications, alongside four or five BACs.
“The idea that everybody needs 10 or 11 GCSEs, which some schools consider to be a doctrinaire truth – one has to step back from that and say, ‘Why, what’s the point?’ ” Mr Budge said.
Mini exam boards
However, running alternative qualifications presents another hurdle: the school itself has to become what is, in essence, a mini exam board – setting, marking and grading exam papers and coursework.
“We are, in effect, our own awarding body,” Mr Budge said. “That does put some pressure on us. We set it up so that all subjects needed to have an external moderator with GCSE experience, to make sure we’re not drifting away from GCSE standards.”
But the school does not attempt to replicate the extremely complicated system used to maintain GCSE standards. Instead, it relies on professional judgement when awarding grades, which, like current GCSEs, are on an A*-G scale.
“Teachers have a sense of what’s a marginal A grade and what’s a high A grade and so on, and they tend to anchor this to individual marks, which are converted into a grade,” Mr Budge said.
If teachers started artificially inflating their pupils’ grades, it would be picked up by others within their department. “Their integrity would be questioned pretty quickly,” he added.
Internal qualifications, which have much more coursework than GCSEs, might seem less daunting than the national exams. Yet from the pupils’ perspective, the system is unlikely to have reduced stress and anxiety in the run-up to yesterday’s results day, because BAC grades are published alongside those brown envelopes of GCSE grades.
“There’s still a sense of expectation about it,” Mr Budge said. “So the pressure isn’t off.”