Assessing the GCSE System of Assessment

Five issues for investigating the pros and cons of GCSEs

The Institute of Education at the University of Plymouth is conducting a research project to provide evidence, for or against: (a) abolishing GCSE examinations; (b) replacing them with a designed system using in-school assessments, monitored by external subject-specific experts; (c) involving stakeholders, such as professional bodies and universities, in the monitoring process.

We consider five issues and provide some emerging findings.

1. Are GCSEs fit for purpose?

GCSEs were introduced in 1988 when school students at age 16 could either stay on in education or leave and get a job. A national set of qualifications were established to allow judgements to be made about progression to further learning or leaving school for employment and/or training.

In an article in the Guardian in August 2020, Melissa Benn (founder of the Local Schools Network) cogently argues that

‘A certificate designed to serve as a final record of achievement for those that once left school at 16 now has little or no meaning when all pupils stay on until 18’

She proposes that teachers and not politicians should lead any debate about what replaces GCSEs. This resonates with the call from other eminent educationalists that externally moderated, standardised teacher assessments would be an educationally better way of judging and advising how students aged about 16 should progress.

Several countries outside the UK use this method, with great success.

2. Do GCSEs prepare students for future learning and training?

The material studied for GCSE examinations should prepare students for their future education, training or vocational activities. Teaching to the test is a common criticism made of teachers preparing students for national exams, especially when school accountability through competing examination performance is used to create school league tables. This practice can suppress deep learning of material that does not conveniently fit into models for exam questions.

In 2015 coursework was abolished in most subjects because it had gained a bad reputation: it allegedly encouraged plagiarism and inappropriate use of the Internet. Teachers found it difficult to mark fairly and, rather than trying to meet the challenge of setting tasks that reflect the benefits of coursework, the then secretary of state replaced coursework with harder examination questions. However, one of the first activities undertaken by students in higher education, very often assessed, is coursework. University staff handle and cope with plagiarism in assessment.

GCSE mathematics is often a required qualification for those students who study non-mathematical subjects at university level. However, mathematics and statistics content of GCSEs (by all the awarding bodies) do not always meet the mathematical and statistical needs of some university subjects and employers.

However, some employers regard GCSEs very highly, but others regard them as too academic and have little use in vocational or technical training programmes.

3. Do GCSEs help in school accountability?

The number of GCSEs passed by students feed into annual league tables constructed to show how well schools perform relative to others. GCSE pass rates become key indicators that can demonstrate one aspect of school performance. This practice can encourage schools to overly-concentrate on teaching subjects that achieve high grades for league tables, rather than those that best suit student aspirations for later study and life.

In the late 1990s a series of compelling research papers discredited the whole system that creates league tables. See Goldstein and Thomas (1996), Goldstein and Spiegelhalter (1996) and Goldstein (1997). These papers question the validity of, and the dangers in, school league tables guiding the assessment of performance and school effectiveness.

Thus the competitive exam system administered to students aged about 16 is unfair and has dubious value in accounting for school performance.

4. Do GCSEs provide value for money? 

If GCSEs were abolished it is clear that a great deal of money would be released for schools to spend on other things. Consequently there would be implications for the awarding body businesses – which naturally leads to another argument concerning whether the system of having competing businesses for educational examinations (unique to the UK) should exist at all.

5. What do other countries do?

Other countries take a very different approach in assessing the knowledge and skills of students for them to progress to the next stage of their education. We are reviewing the approaches taken by countries that have a good reputation in educating their school-aged students. We suggest that the UK would do well to think differently about how to get more from assessing its students at age about 16.

For example, in Finland upper secondary education begins at 15 or 16 and lasts three to four years. Finnish upper secondary students may choose whether to undergo occupational training to develop vocational competence and/or to prepare them for a polytechnic institute or to enter an academic upper school focusing on preparation for university studies and post-graduate professional degrees. Admission to academic upper schools is based on in-school assessments and, in some cases, academic tests and interviews.

Emerging Conclusions

  • GCSEs are not fit for purpose.
  • National exams at this stage of education are all but irrelevant now that students stay in education up to age 18; it could be more helpful to all concerned to have on-line secure tests in basic skills in both numeracy and literacy that can be taken when learners are ready (age 14+) to ensure competency and confidence in these skills.
  • Very few, if any, countries in the world administer two national exams to young people before they proceed to further, higher education or seek employment.
  • Countries with enviable records in educating young people, such as Finland, New Zealand and Japan use in-school teacher assessments to provide evidence of skills and knowledge suitable for going on to academic, technical or vocational study and as preparation for further study in school.
  • There is strong research evidence, reported in the British Educational Research Journal and elsewhere, that stress levels associated with preparation for, and sitting GCSE examinations, cause a large number of young students to under-perform, with many being left behind.
  • The 2020 debacle over the cancelling of GCSEs due to the Covid-19 pandemic shows, amongst other things, we urgently need a new, formal and nationally recognised system of in-school assessment.
  • Changing the role of schools in providing summary assessments in place of GCSEs will have ramifications for UK awarding bodies. The UK is the only country that have competing businesses as providers of national exams – a fact that we have long thought to be educationally unfair for schools and their students.
  • We believe there is a strong educational case that the UK should establish one assessment body for each subject, based on subject-specific expertise provided by teachers, professional bodies, including expertise from universities and employers.

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