The futre of GCSEs

As an exam centre, we are particularly interested in the value of the exams we provide.

The Education Policy Institute at the Conservative party conference gave us much food for thought on the value and future direction of the GCSES. The overall feeling was there were too many exams for 16 year olds. Though the GCSE has plenty of merit. It needs stream lining further.

The Education Policy Institute partnered with AQA to co-host an open fringe panel discussion: ‘The future of GCSEs’. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of exams for two years in a row has raised discussions about the future of examinations. The pandemic and disruption to learning presents a unique opportunity to reassess our approach to assessments to ensure that our young people have access to a system that best prepares them for higher education or employment in 2021. 

Here is Geoff Barton discussing further along with the transcript below.

Qualification, we're an extraordinary example of democracy instead of your teacher deciding whether you were going to get a Gcse. which for many young people always felt like a second rate qualification .

And so if you're a teacher deciding that before you even do the second part of your course, you were being told by Kenneth Baker for the first time.

‘Whatever your background, there is a general qualification. (GCSE) It was an extraordinary moment just as a national curriculum. ‘

And I think we have to acknowledge that the problems are that it was designed in an era when young people were leaving school, in many cases at 16, and therefore you needed something then and that will lead me as we start to talk about GCSEs now into what's different about that.

But while we just continue to think about GCSEs, then it's a popular brand. It's a well understood brand. Many survey today shows that young people continue to trust in that as a brand.

So although there will be some people who are saying radical reform, let's scrap GCSE is the way to go. I would be very cautious about that and we would as an association.

But as you will hear, we will talk about how there needs to be an evolution in it. And one of the reasons for that is that no young person leaves their school or college at 16 now, but 70 percent of them move to a different institution.

Therefore, I think we have them, and particularly after the past two years, the sense of the externality that they haven't had, but where somebody who is not my teacher has made a decision about the grade I should get that is counted for a lot, for a lot of young people. We start by paying tribute to Kenneth Great Baker and a groundbreaking qualification, and that brings us to GCSE.

Now what I'd like to suggest is there are five issues that we were to start to try and address with them.

The first I've mentioned we are not in the same era now, and therefore the idea that the average young person at 16 sits 27, 28 or 29 papers. It's not just those papers, it's just seems eye watering.

And what it's done is to create a whole industry and the risks that are around a whole industry of exams taking place, leaks on the internet and all of that kind of stuff.

Is this not time to rein in and get some greater sense of proportionality, some greater mix of how we assess young people and not reduce them to a grade? I'll come back to that at the end.

My second point is that now since 1988 and you remember Kenneth Baker brought in the national curriculum, Ofsted performance tables, all of that stuff that's now become the norm here.

What that has led to is that we pile a weight of accountability onto GCSE so that for Tom here is not just giving him his GCSE grades, it's also being used to judge his teacher.

It's being used to judge headteachers.

In many cases, it's used to judge the school, sometimes with catastrophic consequences there. And I can illuminate that later on. If you want to hear why that's catastrophic, that's that's not good for the school system because people are more reluctant to go and work in the kind of schools where it is going to be harder to get the kind of grades which would allow you to feel comfortable in your own skin.

But frankly, it's proving not good for reasons of our making for young people because, as Amanda Spielman said, when she went into a history lesson with a Year seven student, the first thing the teacher said is Today we're going to study this topic because it will be a new GCSE history in year 11.

Now, that isn't a problem with GCSEs, it's a problem with our response to GCSE and allowing accountability to narrow the curriculum to drive bad behaviours.

It seems to me third point, the EBacc, another form of accountability, has narrowed the curriculum so that the kind of things which have been the pride of the English education system, the arts, for example, or the need for design technologists have felt to many people as if they've been bedevilled by a kind of snobbery that says some subjects are much more important than others. Now, of course, some subjects are important others. That's why we place such an emphasis on English and maths. But are we really saying that design technology is less important than history or less important than geography? And how are you making that decision?

So there's something we could do around stripping that back and getting a broad and balanced curriculum and the national view you look at our blueprint today is we really ought to be able to give children the dignity of a qualification that shows the basics and the academic subjects and allows them also with the society to follow a technical and vocational route before 16 for that to be showing up as well better.

My final point would be as many of you would be predicting that at the moment our system is built on trying to avoid grade inflation.

That will seem ironic at the end of these two years, but that's the norm is to try and reduce grade inflation. And I was frustrated as ahead for all of those years that the front page of the Daily Telegraph was yet more kids getting more top grades. Standards are slipping.

It always struck me as odd that we were told by secretaries of state every year that we've got the best generation of teachers ever. And yet we weren't allowed to show that grades were ever improving. However, let's not get into the debate about that because that's just about the teaching profession. More significant is the fact that. 30 percent plus 35 percent of young people will get a grade three. That's after being told by early years I've been taught by primary and secondary teacher.

When I said to the former schools minister, What do you think it feels like to get a grade three after 12 years? He said, Why do you fixate on a grade three?

I said, Because you fixate on a grade four, you call the grade four a standard pass. So what do you think a grade three is minister, to which he said. Presumably, it's a good fail. Well, how how dare we do that? How dare you tell young people at the end of 12 years of all of those people that we can't give them the dignity of a qualification? It's not just the qualification, it's the pathways that are then closed off to them.

They won't become social workers, teaching assistants, they won't go into the police, they will go on to a hamster wheel in their local college of simply resetting with dwindling consequences there. So one of the things that people would want to do is to say, could you in basics of maths and basics of English without a qualification that demonstrates that you can do the basics in English and the basics of maths?

And our starting point is how could we, the teaching profession, get far more than 70 percent of young people, those qualifications and dignity which comes from. That's it. Thank you.