What could GCSE alternatives at 16 look like?

St Edward's School Certificate courses, offered instead of GCSEs, expand student learning and the curriculum

Matthew Albrighton St Edwards School

Lord Baker, at a Rethinking Assessment event in November 2020, conveyed a view that, though he was responsible for their introduction in 1988, GCSEs are now ripe for abolition. We at St Edward’s share the same view but it begs the question of what should be done instead.

The challenge of finding an alternative framework for learning and assessment at 16 is not insignificant in scale and complexity. The St Edward’s School Certificate (SESC) is an integrated programme that respects the direct relationships between the way young people are taught, what they learn and how they learn.

Terminal tests, such as GCSE, do provide a useful way of ranking pupils by performance. Tests in themselves are not to be completely frowned upon – A Level and IB remain, largely, terminal summative assessments. The problem is what is tested influences the methodology of teaching and the nature of learning skills developed. GCSEs test well the ability to recall a tightly prescribed, arbitrary, body of knowledge in a very specific format.

Skilled teachers do more with the GCSE format than this, but with the best will, if success is measured in such a narrow way why explore the limits of knowledge and skills when there is potentially a risk of affecting the grade by straying away from the prescribed content. The resulting chasm between what is needed at 16 and the demands on students in the Sixth Form (and then university) is, for many, too difficult to bridge.

The negative stranglehold that GCSEs have on curriculum and teaching design is further tightened because of the weight these lone timed assessments potentially have on the future of a young person and, for what it’s worth, the school – particularly in the maintained and academy sectors. Individual teaching plans and whole school schedules are distorted out of place to ensure that performance against this very singular criteria (that of recall) is maximised. The SESC throws out the premise that recall is the only important learning skill and places central a wider range of skill sets that incorporate spoken communication, research, thinking, creativity, collaboration and self-management.

There is still room for a test or two but ongoing assessment (of presentations, essays, videos, podcasts, abstracts, graphical drawings, debates….the list goes on) downplays the emphasis of the pressurised exam and seeks to reduce the associated potential teenage mental health issues of a single moment of failure. Instead the SESC assessment approach highlights the need to build a more diverse faculty of skills and assesses them appropriately within a textured final folio. The folios are examined against 4 equally weighted criteria: Knowledge; Creativity; Communication; and Self-Management. Such a method is also more realistic of the way an individual is reviewed after full time education when performance involves longitudinal monitoring not only momentary appraisal points. We even ask them to curate their folios! – assessing such skill in itself is valuable.

For example, in the Global Societies course pupils develop a folio of research with accompanying reflection log. The research is drawn upon to build up understanding in themes such as sustainable building design, urban planning, oceanography or the Anthropocene. Gone are pre-packaged case studies ready for 9 markers in two exams and in their place open ended explorations of ideas and concepts. Creativity is encouraged and assessed through discussions and presentations and even, in the case of the planning unit, a masterplan for sustainable city. Rigour is ensured through the requirement for referencing and being open to panel scrutiny. The pupils are exposed to very open dialogue about how to improve their approach to learning. It is certainly not a gentle option.

The over-arching vision of the St Edward’s education is an exploration of what it is to be human and an individual within a community. GCSEs limit the teacher’s ability to have the conversations that relate to personal development. The boundary that is too often placed between the academic and pastoral elements of nurturing a young person is, quite rightly, blurred at St Edward’s. The kernel of the SESC programme is the emphasis on the coaching relationship between teacher and pupil.

Our skilled teachers work with pupils to help them understand themselves, recognise strengths and weaknesses, build resilience and then light a spark. The flexibility of the SESC programmes enables our holistic approach to the process of young people becoming. This none more apparent than in the applied science course which allows pupils to choose different pathways within its design and further allows pupils to design their own enquiries. (ironically something that might have been possible in an early incarnation of GCSE).

“Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire” – W.B. Yeats

This piece emphasises the relationships between the assessment framework, teaching practice and the skills young people need to fully develop as lifelong learners. What is learnt of course matters. The SESCs, with external monitoring from the education department of a University, permit St Edward’s to use its independence intelligently – ironically an unusual thing in the sector. We control to a large extent the knowledge uncovered by the pupils and can make pertinent to them learning that is relevant to their lives now and in the future – medicine, engineering, entrepreneurship, urban design, set building, sound design, oceanography…….. In short we can excite them to think more broadly than a predefined syllabus and follow their passions. Importantly we can adapt as pupils adapt. The practice of teaching (pedagogy) evolves and is intertwined with the content pupils learn.

Currently pupils in years 10 and 11 take 2 or 3 SESCs and 7 or 8 GCSEs accordingly. A long term ambition is to whittle down the GCSE count to the bare minimum and increase the number of SESCs pupils take. The minimum count of GCSEs could well be zero very soon indeed if, as suggested in November 2020, the university application in England moves post qualification at 18.

The full list of courses on offer are:

  • The Ancient World
  • Applied Science
  • Art
  • Big Ideas – A journey in thinking
  • Classical Languages
  • Design and Entrepreneurship
  • Drama and Theatre
  • Global Societies and Environments
  • Historical Inquiry
  • Jewellery and Entrepreneurship
  • Music with Technology
  • Sports Science

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