Skip to content

The Future of GCSE

Students with their 2021-2022 GCSE results

One of the stimulating features of working in education is that few issues are ever really settled to the satisfaction of the majority of teachers and those with an interest in education. Sometimes the dissenting voices seem to be advocating mere sophistry – challenging the status quo simply to gain attention or notoriety – but real arguments rage incessantly within the profession. The debate over GCSE and assessment at age 16 is a good example.

The GCSE examination was created in the early 1980s by Kenneth Baker as a means of ending the divide between O Levels, perceived to be elite academic qualifications and a pathway to A-level, and CSEs, perceived to be less academic qualifications. Creating a single syllabus and a single examination that would adequately assess the full academic range of pupil achievement proved tricky. Hard questions, designed to discriminate between high-achieving pupils would baffle the less talented and easy questions, designed to allow weaker pupils to show what they could do offered no challenge to the more able.

The academic divide quickly re-established itself with tiered examinations. Higher tier targeted grades A to D (A* to D from the introduction of the A* grade in 1994) and Foundation tier targeted grades C to G. Pupils had to be entered for one tier or the other. There was no incentive to teach the harder material to the weaker pupils who would be entered for Foundation tier and would never be assessed on it. This limited the curriculum and the opportunities for the weaker pupils although they might have been overwhelmed by the Higher tier material and papers and simply given up.

Coursework was introduced in 1988 as a means of assessing skills and knowledge in a different way. People then argued furiously about whether coursework assessment was robust and fair and if so what percentage of the GCSE grades should be determined in this way. Internet plagiarism and the rise of the human ‘essay mill’ and most recently an AI Chatbot essay writer have probably doomed coursework now.

Modular GCSEs were introduced in 2009. These qualifications divided the whole GCSE syllabus into typically 4 modules which could be examined separately and potentially re-sat with the best score counting. This was popular with examination boards, who made more money from examination entry fees, with pupils, who only had to master a small amount of content at one time, and with some schools, who hoped that their pupils might gain better grades in this way. I think that this reduced educational standards. Pupils tended to just master the material for the (short) test and then forget it again. It also severed the conceptual links between material in different modules as there was no opportunity to ask questions about these ideas.

Michael Gove shared my dislike of modular examinations, was sceptical of the value of coursework, wanted an end to tiering and felt that the UK needed to raise the bar for educational attainment to compete with other countries. From 2013 the Gove reforms introduced new qualifications with harder content, less coursework, less tiering and harder examinations. The 9-1 grade system was also introduced to give a clear signal that the new grades were not equivalent to the old grades (despite 9-7 being pegged to the old A*-A grades). Unfortunately, the dissonance between the brief parliamentary cycle and the longer lead-in times necessary for introducing new qualifications resulted in different subjects being reformed at different times. A confusing three year period ensued during which pupils received old letter grades for some subjects and new number grades for other subjects. Was an A in Design & Technology as good as an 8 in English and did it matter? Nobody knew.

Schools adapted, as they always do, and the summer of 2020 would have seen the first set of all number grades for all pupils. Unfortunately, covid meant that, after a dizzying U-turn by Gavin Williamson, the pupils were given a grade that was the better of that estimated by the teachers and the grade generated by the infamous Ofqual algorithm based on the school’s historical performance. In summer 2021 GCSE grades were based entirely on teacher assessment, following endless guidance, extra tests and moderation exercises. Finally, in Summer 2022, written examinations resumed and grades were awarded in the traditional way (albeit deflated compared to 2021 but still inflated compared to 2019 when some grades were still letters!).

I hope that you are following all this.

What next? Kenneth Baker, the architect of GCSE, is now one of many voices campaigning for its abolition. In the 1980s GCSE represented a leaving examination for most pupils but now that all pupils continue into education or training until the age of 18 perhaps the argument for assessment at 16 is weaker. Here are some questions about GCSE and my answers (something of a defence of the status quo I realise).

Why do we need GCSE examinations?

GCSE examinations and grades are well-understood by pupils, schools and employers and provide a (hopefully robust) way of measuring learning. This means that a pupil’s GCSE grades can be compared with those for pupils from other schools and compared across subjects. The assessments help the pupils to choose their A-level subjects wisely and certify achievements in subjects not being taken at A-level. Without GCSE results, school Sixth Forms and Sixth Form colleges would begin to set Entrance Exams to gain information about applicants for A-level courses. Some commentators have called for teacher assessments to replace examinations, as in 2021, but few teachers would want to do this, preferring the objective nature of a robust, nationally organised examination.

Do we need 9 separate grades?

Nine grades seem to cover the full range of attainment and the upper grades work pretty well for SGS pupils. In 2022, 77% of the SGS grades were 9, 8 or 7 with 31% at grade 9. If there were fewer grades then most SGS pupils would probably gain one of the top two grades, reducing any sense of discrimination between pupils. If there were more grades then more pupils would be near to a grade boundary perhaps making accurate grading more difficult.

How many subjects should pupils do?

Most pupils at SGS do 9 subjects (with some choosing to do optional extras) and this seems about right. The teachers are able to finish the courses properly and most pupils gain good grades. Offering fewer subjects would narrow the range of skills and knowledge explored by the pupils. Offering more subjects would mean that SGS would struggle to cover the courses properly.

Are there too many exams?

Most GCSE subjects are assessed across 2 papers with a total examination time of around 3 hours. If the examination time was shortened then pupils would be doing fewer questions. These might not cover all of the syllabus and might increase the risk that one bad question would have a significant effect on a pupil’s grade.

Should GCSE assess wider skills for employment?

It is crucial that schools teach these wider skills or ‘character’: see my previous blog for the CBI list, fully reflected in the five SGS character traits. I am not sure, however, that these could be robustly assessed. Teachers could score the pupils or write a reference but it would be difficult to ensure comparable standards across schools and pupils.

Should pupils take GCSE exams when they are ready?

Digital technology offers the tempting prospect that pupils could take screen based tests at any time of the year. It might be difficult, however, to assess on-line the full range of skills that can be examined with a pen-and-paper test. Teachers would find it hard to do final preparations for testing with some pupils whilst other pupils, presumably in the same class, were deemed ‘not yet ready’ and continued with normal work. Currently, teachers will complete the teaching in good time and then spend perhaps 4 weeks revising and working on developing examination technique with all of the pupils. In subjects such as English, the later a pupil takes the test, the better they will do as maturity and experience boost skills. This reduces the incentive for early entry, even though this might reduce the number of tests to be taken at once and reduce stress on the pupils.