Last week neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore tweeted, “Why do we even have GCSEs now that young people have to be in full-time education until 18?” In asking this question in May, she broke the long-standing convention that we should wait until results day before laying into the exam system.
But the existential GCSE question keeps coming up, and it deserves a considered response.
Supporters of the GCSE focus on the fact that even though young people have to remain in full-time education, they will take different paths post-16. GCSE is the last credible qualification that some young people will gain, and it provides a standardised measure of competence in core subjects and skills. Even for those who go on to A level, universities and employers still expect to see GCSE grades.
None of these arguments for GCSE has anything to say about its value in facilitating education rather than selection. They offer rationalisation after the fact: this is the system we have, and to make it work we need GCSEs.
The same applies to the argument that GCSE guarantees curricular breadth until at least age 16, beyond which students are allowed to specialise. Again, this simply reverse-engineers the status quo: A level allows specialisation, so we need GCSEs as a counterbalance to keep the curriculum broad.
Those who question the value of GCSE tend to ask rather more fundamental questions, to which, as Blakemore observes, there is no satisfactory answer.
There is increasing concern that high-stakes exams impose unnecessary anxiety. One response to Blakemore’s tweet argued that previous generations have taken school exams, so why is it suddenly causing stress for today’s youth? Yet every parent knows that the stakes are several orders of magnitude higher for children today than they were for us.
'Unacceptable levels of anxiety'
There remains an eerie silence when it comes to any educational justification for GCSE. Test-prep rather than teaching dominates Years 11, 10 and, increasingly, (because of the additional content injected into the reformed specifications) Year 9 as well.
The narrow focus on getting over the assessment hurdle does a lot to undermine intellectual curiosity and love of learning. The battery of high-stakes exams forces students into a learned helplessness, leading at best to a loss of self-direction and at worst to unacceptable levels of anxiety.
The current exam regime is distracting, distorting and, ultimately, damaging, because GCSE results are used not only to judge individuals but also to evaluate teachers and schools as well. The use of GCSE as an accountability lever has distracted pedagogy, but also distorted the curriculum (with creative arts subjects being squeezed out).
Where there is a will there should be a way to remove the felt need for GCSE in its current form, but it requires a review of the entire system. The revision of the national curriculum was a tragically missed opportunity – GCSE was assumed as given, so the review amounted to little more than a rearrangement of curriculum deckchairs. When GCSE reform did come, it simply added harder content and hiked up grade boundaries – making the stakes even higher.
A few people have identified the elephant in the exam room. One response to Blakemore’s tweet pointed to the "vested interests" of the testing industry, and another observed that public exams constitute compulsory transfers of money from the public sector to the private sector.
Failing a thorough review of secondary and higher education, the 16-plus phase will remain disjointed, so we might continue to need rigorous standardised testing at 16. But it shouldn’t be allowed to dominate and distort. Assessment for selection should not prevail over intellectual development. Surely it is possible to design a less intrusive, but equally reliable way of reporting on pupils’ achievements at age 16?
Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1