My interest in GCSE reform pre-dates Covid-19, but it’s been heartening in the past 18 months to connect with colleagues and people beyond the profession who have engaged in serious discussions of the problems with our current system of secondary examinations.
In this article, I don’t want to propose specific changes, as I passionately believe that any reform, to be successful, needs to involve far broader a perspective than I am capable of bringing.
I am also sensitive to those who fear that this kind of discussion is destabilising to students, teachers and parents at a time when we’re so desperately trying to give our young people a chance to return to something more “normal” and stable than the turmoil of the past 18 months.
In the early days of the Rethinking Assessment campaign group, while we were formulating what to call ourselves, we settled on the word “rethinking” precisely because we know this process is going to need a lot of careful reflection. However, we are equally certain about the urgent need for significant reform, something that predated Covid-19 but is even clearer to us now.
“The binary pitting the ‘nihilistic’ scrappers against the ‘die-hard’ conservationists, is unhelpful at best”
Rather than dwell on the problems with the current system — it is fairly clear to us how brittle things are — I’d like to explore a particular approach that might be worth discussing and already has support from many quarters.
Frustratingly, the binary set up by newspapers, looking for a sensationalist headline, pitting the “nihilistic” scrappers against the “die-hard” conservationists, is unhelpful at best and downright dangerous at worst.
One reason so many react against the idea of discussing reform is because so many of us are exhausted by the demands of the past year and a half and dream of a return to the known quantities of times before the pandemic. In the short term, I accept we may well need to stick with the system as was while we press ahead with a thorough process of formulating a new system.
“While we fight the pandemic, thinking about how things could be better sustains us through these dark hours.”
There is certainly little capacity right now for any innovation beyond that which has been forced upon us by the current situation. However, like during the Second World War (sorry to revert to such a hackneyed historical reference), there was a truce between rival political parties until the end of hostilities, but planning for the National Health Service and other welfare state reforms was underway well before 1945.
Similarly, while we fight the pandemic and it draws down a lot of our energy, thinking about how things could be better, not only sustains us through these dark hours but it also ensures young people won’t have to wait too long before real change can be decided upon and then implemented.
So what might this new dawn look like, after we emerge from the smoke of battle? Well, it is clear that, in discussing GCSE reform one is also looking at the university and college entrance process, skills that employers are looking for in the 21st century and how we use data to inform inspections.
“Universities do need a mechanism if they are to select students on something approximating merit.”
Recent positive noises from UCAS and government about moving to PQA (Post-Qualification Applications) for students applying to universities and colleges would certainly reduce the importance placed on GCSEs by universities who, understandably, do need a mechanism if they are to select students on something approximating merit.
While the move would create other problems which would need solving, it would certainly reduce the pressure on students to perform at an optimal level two years before they leave school. One thing I particularly appreciate about working at my school, Bedales, is the reduced exam pressure and (more importantly) commensurate increased opportunities for learning and growth that our students can access: Bedales Assessed Courses as an alternative to many GCSE subjects are now well established.
For our cohort, at least, almost of all of whom are aiming to progress on to tertiary education, the need to prove themselves twice in quick succession now seems redundant, especially after the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2007.
Even for those transferring to colleges at 16 or apprenticeships, the need to gain 10 or 11 GCSEs is unnecessary – five is all that is needed, if that. Certainly, in other high performing education systems around the world, students sit much reduced assessments at 16 and still outperform English students in the PISA tests (not that I’m the greatest fan of these comparisons).
“Top-down, punitive labelling of schools is not the best way of upholding standards.”
Even in “normal” times, our system has become much too narrowed on a certain type of learning and assessment at 16 to the detriment of the arts, humanities and personal growth at what we know is the most sensitive time in adolescent development.
Also, the way GCSE data in particular has been used to classify schools through the Ofsted system does not lead to sustainable improvements, instead promoting off-rolling, narrowed focus for school development, three year GCSE programmes, the decimation of arts subjects and many other pernicious unintended consequences.
Top-down, punitive labelling of schools is not the best way of upholding standards and betrays the fundamental lack of trust that seems to drive many of the decisions at the Department for Education. This breakdown in trust between teachers and government needs to be acknowledged and addressed by both sides and, as in many other areas of our society, we will need to work together in future if we are to find ways of improving a clearly failing system.
“Compromise will inevitably be part of the process.”
So, what is the solution? For me it’s an independent, broad-church commission which is given a clear remit to look at the picture as a whole and then propose several possible solutions. Compromise will inevitably be part of the process and I’m sure that we won’t be able to reform away all the ills baked into the system.
However, we cannot ignore the 30 per cent of students who fail their GCSEs every year, nor should we imagine that the GCSE curriculum prepares our young people sufficiently well for the 21st century and we all know that there is more to effective assessment than high-stakes, terminal exams.
Burying our heads in the sands and hoping everything will go back to normal is not an option in the long term so, however hard it might be. We need to start work on the careful process of considered reform.