‘The move toward fewer GCSEs is gaining momentum’

Schools have far more freedom to innovate in assessment than they realise, writes Clare Jarmy from Bedales School

GCSE REsults 2023, exams

Have you ever had the experience of students being marked down, despite the fact they wrote a better, more developed answer than was required?

Do you sometimes feel the content of a GCSE course is lacklustre?

Or that some students aren’t given the chance to shine, because methods of assessment are too rigid?

Perhaps you have been concerned about the effect of high-stakes terminal assessments on wellbeing, or long for a more holistic approach?

I am yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t answer yes to most or all of these questions, and I want to demonstrate that there is another way.

In 2005, Bedales decided that GCSEs were too rigid and that, by relying on them, we were narrowing our students’ educational horizons. Our own assessed courses were therefore introduced to Year 10 in 2005, making the current cohort our seventeenth undertaking Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs).

Today our students study five GCSEs and IGCSEs (English Language, Maths, Sciences and a foreign language) and then can choose up to five of the 14 BACs in the following subjects: Ancient Civilisations; Art; Dance; Design – Product and Fashion; Digital Game Design; English Literature; Geography; Global Awareness; History; Music; Outdoor Work; Philosophy, Religion & Ethics; Sports Science; and Theatre.

“Teachers can shape the syllabus according to current events or their students’ interests.”

BACs are two-year courses with continuous assessment as well as, in many cases, a final exam. There is more reliance on collaboration, research, creative thought and problem solving – a natural progression therefore to A-level study (which are the only qualifications we offer at Sixth Form).

Teachers can shape the syllabus according to current events or their students’ interests and go significantly beyond the confines of the GCSE syllabus. The courses are designed to have “rough equivalence” with GCSE standards and are graded 1-9.

Work that should achieve grade n at GCSE should therefore achieve this grade at BAC. The reason we talk of “rough equivalence” is to recognise key differences in our approach: our assessment models are often different from GCSEs; some of our subjects are not offered at GCSE; and some of our assessments are completed in Year 10, when students are younger than they would be when GCSE exams are taken.

BACs are internally assessed and externally moderated by experts with the depth of experience required to judge the standards of BAC work. The moderators are independent of Bedales, and therefore able to take an impartial view. On the whole, moderators serve for around four years.

“Schools can feel tied to traditions and thinking, and we are often far freer than we realise.”

Since their introduction. Bedales has sought to further anchor BAC practice and standards by consulting outside bodies. Twice, it has invited the Independent Schools Inspectorate to review BAC content, assessment and pedagogy, on a consultancy basis.

Bedales also partnered with Research Schools International, affiliated to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in a project about motivation. Following a mixed-methods study, it was found that: “The vast majority of students at Bedales report being ‘a good amount’ or ‘very’ motivated in academic courses. In addition, students at Bedales describe how the school culture supports them to be independent learners. Further, Bedales students tend to report having a genuine love of learning and describe a school culture that inspires curiosity.”

Having run BACs since 2005, Bedales has effectively provided a trial to see what happens when students undertake school-directed courses, taking far fewer GCSEs. We are confident that it is good for students in terms of preparation for A-level and further study, and also in developing independent learning, enjoyment, and in equipping students with relevant skills for their futures.

“For those GCSEs that remain, we want students to take these ‘when ready’.”

Now, more than ever, the move to fewer GCSEs is gaining momentum, with many schools questioning whether a diet of 10 or eleven GCSEs really needs to fill up students’ timetables. Speaking at the Next Generation Assessment Conference in January, even the chair of Pearson UK, Mary Curnock Cook, was imagining a future where students study only four or five GCSEs.

Government is listening, too. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Schools, Learning and Assessment has recently been calling for evidence on assessment reform, something to which we were delighted to contribute.

Bedales loves welcoming visitors from independent and maintained sector schools to see what we do. Sometimes, a visit to Bedales prompts schools to create their own alternatives. In the maintained sector, Progress 8 makes this harder, but colleagues across the two sectors are now getting excited about, for example, having their own courses for one or two subjects, whilst keeping other GCSEs.

We encourage everyone wanting to free up space to think seriously about taking this journey.

Schools can feel tied to traditions and thinking, and we are often far freer than we realise. As for us, we are looking seriously into the possibility of reducing the number of GCSEs further, bringing more subjects into the BACs. Where possible, for those GCSEs that remain, we want students to take these “when ready” in order to free up time in the curriculum for other more meaningful learning experiences.