Do we need GCSEs?

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While all the attention was on students who were due to take their A Levels or GCSEs last summer, I was more concerned about those who will be taking their GCSEs in 2021. They are younger than A Level students, and most have not yet fully developed the skills of self-directed study, so still need a high level of teacher input and support.

The two years leading up to their exams next year will have been seriously disrupted. In Year 10 they were learning at home from March to July, and we are all aware of the huge disparities that produced, exacerbating existing disadvantages. In their current Year 11 they have just spent a strange term during which many will have had to quarantine at least once.

It seems headteachers have welcomed the arrangements that the Government has just announced for next summer’s GCSE exams. Students who miss their exams because they are self-isolating will be able to take backup exams in July or will be given teacher assessments. Hopefully, with a vaccine imminent, this will only affect a small number.

Of more significance is the news that the grading will be more generous, and that students will get advance knowledge of some of the topics that will be examined. This will help to compensate for the inevitable reduction in coverage of the syllabus by this cohort.

But this does make me wonder, not for the first time, why we have GCSE exams at all. The UK is the only country in Europe that still has formal public exams at 16. Of course, it made sense when the majority of young people left school at 16, as the results helped them find a pathway into work or into the next stage of education. However, today, between the ages of 16 and 18, all young people have to be in education or work-based training.

Some might argue that 16 marks the end of a general education and from then on young people embark on more narrowly defined areas of study or skill, so some kind of assessment is needed in order to identify a student’s ability and aptitudes. But is the whole edifice of GCSEs really necessary to achieve that?

I would argue that our current A Level offering funnels students into narrow specialisms too early and that most would benefit from a broader programme of study up to 18. Young people can expect to change career direction more than once in their adult life; when they start out they all need a good range of academic and technical skills combined with flexibility and learning skills, rather than specific subject knowledge.

The debate over education for 14 to 19 year olds has been running for many years. Various attempts, such as the Tomlinson Report, have been made to introduce new frameworks for qualifications, but the formal structure of exams at 16 still persists.

Let’s use the post-Covid reboot as an opportunity to reconsider what we are offering our young people. Let’s start by scrapping GCSEs and by planning a more inclusive and holistic approach to education for 14 to 19 year olds.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Peter Watson 3rd Dec '20 - 8:39am

    “I would argue that our current A Level offering funnels students into narrow specialisms too early and that most would benefit from a broader programme of study up to 18.”
    Hear, hear!
    One of my (many) disappointments in the Coalition years was the way that funnelling was made even worse by the A-level reforms.

  • John Marriott 3rd Dec '20 - 9:57am

    No we don’t! What we need is for the government – any government – to retrieve the 2003 Tomlinson Report on 14 to 19 education, from the shelf to which it was confined by the Blair government that commissioned it in the first place, dust it off and start using it as a blueprint to reform education, both academic and vocation, in this vital period of young people’s lives. Why try to reinvent the wheel?

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Dec '20 - 11:35am
  • David Evans 3rd Dec '20 - 12:00pm

    I do worry when grand sounding statements are made in an article which instinctively don’t seem to accord with reality. In this article we have the following:

    “The UK is the only country in Europe that still has formal public exams at 16,” – not at all sure. There are lots of qualifications across Europe for 16 year olds’ so what is meant by the expression ‘formal public exams’?

    “However, today, between the ages of 16 and 18, all young people have to be in education or work-based training.” I don’t know where idea comes from. Currently Wales claims 89% of 16-117 year olds in employment, education or training and England 88%. So where are the other 12%?

    I must admit the aversion in our country by so many on the left to examinations (both of pupils and teachers) seems to go beyond a phobia. Today I heard people saying Ofsted inspections should not go ahead even in May because children could be carriers and that exams should not go ahead in June again because of Covid. Indeed results should be made easier because youngsters should not be disadvantaged because their education has been disrupted. It’s almost as if what matters is not the education a child has received, but what it says on a certificate.

    However in South Korea, the national exams are going ahead today after a two week delay. Of course Korea has a much lower incidence of Covid.

    But I wonder if their lower incidence is because they were better prepared because they take education so much more seriously?

  • @David Evans.
    There are all sorts of qualifications around Europe, but can you point me to another European country where virtually all children are expected to take a major set of external exams at 16?
    I should have been more precise about the differences between the four nations in the UK in terms of what they may or may not do between 16 and 18. What I wrote applies to England. See
    And, by the way, my ‘grand sounding statement’ was born of a lifetime teaching in secondary schools and FE.

  • David Evans 3rd Dec '20 - 2:04pm

    Thanks for the response Mary.

    I’m afraid I am not an expert on Europe wide education differences, and its terminology and jargon, so I don’t have an answer off the cuff to your question “can you point me to another European country where virtually all children are expected to take a major set of external exams at 16?” I would suppose any answer would have to depend upon exactly what you meant by the expression “a major set of external exams.”

    However, I would have hoped that having proposed a change in education policy and justifying it by reference to the rest of Europe, you would have an answer to the question “What is meant by the expression ‘formal public exams’?” If you could let me know I would appreciate it.

    Likewise, when you said “However, today, between the ages of 16 and 18, all young people have to be in education or work-based training.” I pointed out that 11% of 16-17 year olds (please excuse finger trouble in earlier post) were not in employment, education or training in Wales. In England the figure is 4.5% – (less than the 12% which was for those between 16 and 24, my error) but I still worry about the 4.5%, because whatever may claim, the stats do not support it.

    As you rightly point out states
    You can leave school on the last Friday in June if you’ll be 16 by the end of the summer holidays.
    You must then do one of the following until you’re 18:
    • stay in full-time education, for example at a college
    • start an apprenticeship or traineeship
    • spend 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training

    However, just as when Donald Trump says “There has been massive fraud in the election” I, like the courts in America say “Show me the evidence”, and the evidence shows is that 4.5% of 16-17 year olds in England and 12% in Wales are not in employment, education or training, and that is important.

  • To my mind, it’s a secondary question. First, we should revisit the purpose of education. Then, when we have a view of what we are trying to achieve (which has got lost in the mists of time and tradition), we can decide the best way(s) to do so. Exams are likely to form part of the solution.
    Again, the purpose of any exam needs to be questioned. Should an exam be designed to determine the achievement of a certain standard? An example would be the driving test. The standard doesn’t change but outcomes may, depending on factors such as aptitude, training and practice.
    Or should an exam seek to identify an order (or band) of students by outcome? An example would be the annual school cross-country run. Each year, runners will be ranked from 1 to 100, but the standard (in this case, the median time) will vary according to the quality of the runners, the conditions under foot and the weather.
    It’s the conflation of these two roles that gives rise to the perennial charge of A-level/GCSE “grade inflation” as the role and purpose of exams is not sufficiently scrutinised.

  • I think people are approaching this from the wrong angle.
    The education system has a number of natural boundaries where pupils can and do change institutions, one of these is at 16. Thus we have a natural point where the producing institution will want to have some results that it can bandy around to promote both itself and the worth of its pupils. Additionally, the receiving institutions will want some means of assessing their new intake. I think we need to address this very real requirement before getting carried away on doing away with a long-standing performance metric.

    Interestingly, the town neighbouring us had a mix of secondary schools, as a result of formerly having a mid-school system. The standalone middle-schools have now all gone, in part because there was no formal assessment at this lower/upper school boundary and so problems at the lower schools weren’t being picked up until pupils started at an upper school resulting in the upper school having to spend on “catch up” teaching to bring these pupils up to their peer groups standard.

    The question over A-level specialisation is a debate separate to that of having exams at 16.

  • @Martin – Doing without exams at 16 is not a problem so long as basic competencies are assessed later at the same institution ie. Pupils attend the same school from 11 to 18. Without this caveat, expect problems and some form of institution-specific GCSE/entrance exam to arise.

  • When I started school in 1945 the school leaving age in England was 14 as it had been since 1918. It was raised to 15 in 1947. There was a further raising of the school leaving age in 1972 to 16.
    The structure of exams at 16 and 18 though was certainly in place before the war. This was for the grammar schools and those aiming for university.
    However the issue to me, particularly for those missing from education both before and after 16, is the influence of family poverty and stress on educational outcomes.
    The most obvious group is looked after children, Their life experience is a national scandal. Figures are produced of outcomes for looked after children. They should not be accepted in a civilised society. Nor should the very high proportions of those in prison who have been looked after or labelled as having SEND.
    Then there is a clear correlation with poverty. Of course correlation does not equal causation, but there is a wealth of literature on the causes of this underachievement.
    I hoped that the party would highlight and campaign on poverty in our society.
    I suppose I need to look elsewhere.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Dec '20 - 1:39pm

    Some subjects such as English, IT, and environmental science could continue to age 18 and for these a formal GCSE might not be necessary. Other where studying for some is completed, would benefit from an objective assessment of their learning. Perhaps student could choose whether they wanted to undergo an assessment for each subject helped of course by their teachers.

  • @Martin. I don’t quite follow the argument. The vast majority of students in the independent sector stay on to 18, and I am not suggesting we abolish external A Levels.
    By “informal assessment” do you mean the structured assessments carried out by professional teachers, which, of course, they do throughout a pupil’s time at school? There is no need to make things any different at the end of Year 11.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Dec '20 - 6:05pm


  • Renata Jackson 6th Dec '20 - 1:50am

    “The UK is the only country in Europe that still has formal public exams at 16.”

    Ireland has public exams at 15/16. However, factual accuracy in pieces on this site is not something to which the contributors, or the moderators, give much priority. Then again, given some of the nonsensical comments made about Ireland, knowledge of that country is even less of a priority.

  • @Renata Jackson – normally, as editor, I wouldn’t have published your comment, because it is unnecessarily offensive to the author of the piece. As I happen to fill both shoes on this occasion so I thought I would let it go to expose the kinds of casually rude comments that we do receive.
    Thank you for letting me know about the exams in ROI, and I apologise for my error. I am pretty careful about the factual accuracy of my posts and I should perhaps have used the term “Mainland Europe”.
    I have never, as far as I can tell, made any non-sensical comments about Ireland. We do rely on our readers to contribute to debates by pointing out any mistakes – perhaps you can identify any that you have spotted so we can correct them.

  • @Martin – Indeed. I would not advocate getting rid of exams at 16 without a proper restructuring of qualifications at 18.

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