What’s wrong with high-stakes GCSE exams?

Let’s call time on an outmoded, unfair, unnecessary interruption to schooling

Alison Peacock CEO - Chartered College of Teaching

I’m writing in a personal capacity, and not all members of the College will agree with me, but in my opinion, GCSEs are:

  • Outdated system related to school leaving age from a former era
  • Unfair because of the ‘snapshot’ nature of exams
  • Stressful – anxiety builds over labelling and ranking of young people, both for the individuals and their families
  • Limiting future opportunities for those told they have ‘failed’
  • Unnecessary end-stop during an ongoing education process
  • Costly – how much better to invest the millions currently spent with powerful exam boards on enriching the curriculum instead

There is no longer a valid reason for high stakes exams at age 16. We need an assessment system that evaluates progress across a broad curriculum from primary school onwards. This is not about ‘dumbing down’. Precisely the opposite, this is about keeping the door open, constantly demanding better, offering students the chance to relentlessly challenge themselves to improve, develop, master new skills. We should refuse to treat education as if it were a racetrack.

The racetrack metaphor speaks of young people ranking one another, judging what is ‘worth’ their time in lessons related to perceived future exam attainment. It means winners and losers. It also feeds the divide between schools. Instead of wringing our hands about the glittering results of the independent sector compared with secondary schools more generally, we should be seeking to develop a shared collaborative ethos between all schools that is about providing endless inclusive opportunities for choice and challenge.

We need to agree what the purpose of assessment is. If it is primarily to provide feedback, to consolidate learning and to enable future choices to be made, assessment methodology needs to be broad, wide-ranging and continuous. The entire curriculum should be rich, diverse and ever-changing. We need an intelligent multi-modal approach to assessment that supports and encourages progress across the curriculum, instead of a curriculum shaped and driven by examinations rubric. The ‘high stakes’ nature of GCSEs purports to be about individual success, but in reality masks a measure of schools that feeds league tables for accountability. We should decide whether our young people matter more than the set of results they can produce from a limited, timed, written diet.

If the total aim of terminal assessments at eighteen is to rank youngsters for the next stage of their lives it is wholly unnecessary to foreshadow this with GCSEs. Let us instead ensure that routes before and beyond the age of sixteen lead to a collective sense of achievement, wellbeing and intrinsic motivation. If society demands accountability maybe this should be judged by the life choices and satisfaction levels of young people beyond schooling age. If we seek to encourage, nurture and inspire an ambitious future generation we could do better than judging success on a narrow set of exam results.

In summary, if education is to move beyond the ‘racetrack’ we need system reform:

  1. Remove the pass/fail boundary at age sixteen and replace it with ongoing formative
    assessment that supports decision making about pathways for future achievement.
  2. Keep the ‘door open’ for every young person to continue learning into adulthood.
  3. Recognise life achievements along the way via methodology such as a digital
  4. Broaden society’s view of what counts as ‘success’ at sixteen and eighteen.
  5. Take a longer term view of the value of schooling, replacing crude league tables with
    honest, collaborative and intelligent accountability.


Dame Alison Peacock

The Chartered College of Teaching

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