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Could we live without GCSEs?

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Will the cancellation of the summer 2020 GCSEs make any substantial difference to where the nation’s 16-year-olds find themselves 6 months later?
GCSEs made sense in a time when age 16 signalled the end of formal education for a huge proportion of the school population. In the modern world, it’s just another point at which young people pick a particular route, in the same way they do when they choose options at the end of Year 9.
What would we lose if GCSEs just didn’t happen? 

 

About the Author

Paul is the Chief Executive Officer of the Trust,  a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, including taking over three schools in Ofsted Category 4 and one in Special Measures, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher.

Could we live without GCSEs?

The first thing to say about the cancellation of GCSE exams is that I understand the dismay and disappointment of the young people and their teachers who have worked hard to prepare for this summer’s exams. There is a sense that the compact between students and the education system has been broken. The principle that your destiny is not predetermined, but that you can achieve great things if you work hard and do your best is one that we have spent countless hours embedding. If it turns out that the most important factors in your Geography grade are a) how well you did in Maths and English SATs when you were 11 years old b) how well a completely different set of students did last year (possibly with a different teacher) and c) how clever your friends are – then an element of disillusionment is understandable.

However, the die is cast – the solution has been settled upon, the hastily-cobbled system will run its course, and grades will be awarded. The students who feel a sense of unfairness have my sympathy. However, the fundamental question is, ‘So what?’ Will the cancellation of GCSEs make any substantial difference to where the nation’s 16-year-olds find themselves in 6 months’ time? How many students will find that they are denied access to a 6th form course, or a college place, or an apprenticeship based on teacher assessment, that they would otherwise have been able to access?

In reality, all but a tiny handful will be exactly where they would have been. Speaking from our own organisation, we have a fairly clear picture of which students are intending to come to our 6th Form; we know, broadly speaking, which courses they will select and we have a clear picture whether that is an appropriate choice; we have given advice to that effect and offered a place on that basis. In a normal year, if a student came to us on results day with a disastrous result, and we knew that did not reflect their performance over time, we wouldn’t just turn them away – we would consider a retake, maybe a shift in the pattern of courses, not a simple rejection. We would keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

We see the same attitude reflected from employers offering apprenticeships, and FE colleges offering vocational routes – we all want students to succeed and to follow the route that gives them the best chance of long-term success. This year, students are still able to access appropriate destinations, based on teacher assessment. There is no incentive for teachers to support students on to courses where they would be out of their depth and likely to fail. It may be an imperfect system, but the one its replacing is not perfect either.

GCSEs made sense in a time when age 16 signalled the end of formal education for a huge proportion of the school population. In the modern world, it’s just another point at which young people pick a particular route, in the same way they do when they choose options at the end of Year 9.

So, what would we lose if GCSEs just didn’t happen? What purpose do they actually serve? Let’s just imagine if this situation became permanent and we decided to abandon KS4 exams on a permanent basis. What would be the consequences of a system that relied on a model of teacher assessment?

Well, it can be argued that exams are a good motivational tool – we’ve all seen Year 11 students suddenly buckle down with a term to go after a few years’ coasting. But is that final year acceleration inevitable only when all the eggs are put into the exams basket? If we can change the culture so that it’s clear that your performance over the whole course is considered, then we would be encouraging greater depth of learning as opposed to superficial cramming of knowledge that can be immediately discarded after the exam.

We wouldn’t have external published data with which to compare and judge schools – league tables would disappear. I have written before about the distorting effect of league table culture, but the excesses that it has led to – spurious courses and entry patterns, off-rolling, gaming in all its forms – are clear to see even for its greatest advocates. The inherent socio-economic unfairness written deep into the fabric of our current system is magnified and highlighted through our league table obsession.

Of course, the idea that schools can’t be judged by results is one that fills some people with horror. In reality, there are plenty of other ways that parents or other interested parties can judge schools – Ofsted reports (and let’s face it, Ofsted’s new framework is ahead of the curve here) look at the full range of school provision, no longer just the summary of exam data. Perhaps parents could be given greater opportunity to visit school, or to talk to current parents, or look at the impact of the school in the community.

For those who want data, destination data is possibly the best indicator of the way that a school is having an impact on the life chances of student, but there are also exclusion and attendance figures, financial data (including how much is allocated to executive pay), and a whole range of data that schools can choose to share.

A system not geared around exam preparation would obviously depend upon skilled and robust internal assessment practices, which wouldn’t appear in every school overnight. However, a much greater focus on formative assessment to secure improvement and development would lead to the development of assessment practice and a greater incentive for schools to collaborate for the moderation of student performance.

The possibility afforded by changes to curriculum design are exciting and full of potential to improve learning and progress – the structure of the course dictated by the content of the discipline, not the exam spec, the potential use of the many hours that are currently lost for revision, mocks, exam practice. We open up the possibilities of linking curriculum to enrichment, of making deep cross-disciplinary links, of making genuine curriculum connections with the wider world of work and the local community.

Think of the huge savings that we could free up if we didn’t have to pay tens of thousands every school every year on exam fees, exam-related CPD and invigilation (and think of the use that we could make of our army of invigilators). Think of the use we could make of the period from June to late August - planning ahead, focusing on transition or work experience, instead of sweating on that fateful results day.

I suspect that this is a pipe dream, as a result of the insurmountable barriers of the lack of trust in the educational professionals and the importance of external measures in our performativity culture. Assuming that this is a one-year hiatus, by this time next year, I’ll be supporting and cajoling our students and staff to get the best results they can, and celebrating and commiserating with them as usual in the summer. If that’s the case, I will find it hard not to have the feeling of an opportunity squandered.

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 April 2020 12:19

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