Just consider, for a moment, what it must be like to be in year 11 right now, in the midst of a pandemic, after a summer of exam chaos, with an uncertain 6 months ahead. Our 15- and 16-year olds have seen their immediate predecessors receive Centre Assessed Grades for their GCSEs, their summer exams having been replaced by lockdown. Year 11 students realise that it is by no means certain whether they themselves will be taking exams next summer. And perhaps they are also aware of the intense debate currently raging around GCSEs, in which the exams they are working towards are criticised as ‘too narrow’, ‘not fit for purpose’, with ensuing calls for their abolition and replacement.
Like the rest of us, our GCSE students are having to adapt to a new school life of year-group ‘bubbles’ for academic lessons and co-curricular activities; endless hand-sanitising and mask-wearing, and one-way systems around the school. But they also shoulder the particular anxiety borne of uncertainty over how their progress will be assessed next year.
What of the voices saying it’s time for change at 16+; that we should abolish GCSE?
When GCSE was introduced in 1988 children could either leave school at 16 or stay on to do A levels. Since all students now remain at school until they are 18, some argue that exams at 16+ are obsolete. However, I believe that a qualification at this point is a useful staging post, especially if it is a broader assessment of their achievements so far - academically, creatively, personally, socially. For as long as the UK system encourages greater specialisation between the ages of 16 and 18, currently in the form of A levels, it makes sense to have something that validates the broader curriculum studied up to 16. After that, it suits some young people to embark upon a more vocational curriculum while others begin their academic A level courses.
The question therefore is whether GCSE in its present form offers the right style of assessment. Most educators would agree that GCSE is too mechanical; that it has become a means of ranking schools, rather than advancing education, and that it entrenches an arid teaching-to-the-test approach.
I would like to see GCSE evolve to become much broader in its reach and requirements. A diploma-like qualification at 16, perhaps modelled on the International Baccalaureate, could encourage the development of wider skills that are undoubtedly valuable for the work place and for life. Within a broad range of subjects, including science, humanities, arts and languages, thinking skills and philosophy could be included; this approach would help students to make connections in their learning, in contrast to the current system, which entrenches a belief that subjects are separate and discrete. Assessment could be correspondingly broad: as well as some formal exams, presentations and extended essays could be included, allowing individual students to play to their different strengths. Some people are blessed with the accurate and swift recall required by exams; those who are not could benefit enormously from being given the opportunity to talk about what they have learned. And an extended essay would allow students to focus on and research an area of particular interest to them, rather than jumping through the hoops of a syllabus. I would also like to see credit given for skills such as the ability to work as a team, to analyse, research, evaluate and present information - orally and in writing.
A key objective of a broader assessment could also be to mitigate the excessive pressure and stress felt by many of our teenagers at the time of GCSE.
Our children are so much more than a collection of grades, something which seems to have been forgotten with the creeping industrialisation of education. In contrast to our algorithm-dependent assessment schemes, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a system which recognised and rewarded participation in activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme, with its teamwork, self-sufficiency training, co-curricular skills and voluntary service requirements? Or one which was flexible enough to credit the personal, as well as the academic development of our young people, perhaps through acknowledging charity fund-raising, leadership or voluntary work?
Some will say that such provision is easily provided in independent schools, with their resources and established traditions of co-curricular excellence. But this is not about money and resources, it’s about outlook, organisation and a determination to bring these highly educational elements into school life and make such opportunities available to all children. It is encouraging to see that OFSTED now seems to endorse this view, with its recent statement of intent that “[school] leaders [should] take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.” A welcome change of approach: if the vast amount of effort and resources schools have had to invest in ticking boxes for OFSTED could be released for other initiatives which contribute to each individual student’s personal development, that really would be a result.
Every crisis presents an opportunity to reappraise what we have; to look at how we do things with new eyes and to find the courage to change for the better. Perhaps this is the moment to find a better way of assessing the progress, academic and otherwise, our 16 year-olds have made, and with a new purpose: not to categorise them in narrow academic terms as successes or failures, but to help them to find where they can thrive and flourish in the future.
Headmaster of St Benedict’s School, Ealing
30th September 2020
(St Benedict’s is an HMC independent, co-educational day school in west London for pupils aged 3 to18.)