Northern Ireland news

School closures prompt fresh calls for GCSE overhaul

GCSEs are traditionally seen as good practice for young people ahead of the more career defining A-levels

THE cancellation of exams for a second year has brought the issue of reform back into sharp focus. Education Correspondent Simon Doyle asks experts if it is now time to scrap GCSEs.


LONG before it was known how school closures and the switch to remote learning would affect exams, there were demands for an overhaul of GCSEs.

They have been criticised as being a terrible use of time and money.

Critics argue they put an unacceptable burden on pupils and teachers and narrow the curriculum.

Requiring 16-year-olds to sit up to 30 hours of high-stakes written tests - when most stay in education for at least another two years - is disproportionate and unnecessary, they claim.

The grades fiasco of last summer has given greater weight to calls for reform.

Once recognised as a challenging qualification of which to be proud - and which alone could lead to employment - GCSEs are now mostly considered a warm-up act ahead of more career-defining A-levels.

Pupils moving into sixth form this year will do so having been denied the chance to sit any papers.

Experts suggest now is the time for a greater shake-up rather than the tinkering of the past two decades.

They point to widespread dissatisfaction among school staff with GCSEs, which they claim have been made deliberately harder with more content and papers since reforms in 2015.

A poll by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) found four in five principals wanted the qualifications shaken up or done away with.

Head teachers say they leave too many pupils demoralised and increase anxiety.

They have also raised concerns that they are not fully accessible to lower attaining pupils, including those with special educational needs.

Of those polled by ASCL, almost 40 per cent wanted GCSEs scrapped altogether and assessment for 16-year-olds reviewed.

Those calling for GCSEs to end suggest it is time to re-examine assessment at 16 in an era when young people are expected to remain in education until 18.

A lighter-touch system, they say, is needed to facilitate onward progression.

Those who favour reform talk about reducing the amount of exams, the volume of content in courses, and the emphasis on having to recall large amounts of information.

The EDSK think tank has said GCSEs put an unacceptable burden on pupils and teachers.

It has recommended they be abolished by 2025 and replaced with computer-based exams at age 15.

These would act as a halfway `staging post' on every pupil's journey through secondary school.

They would be shorter, lasting 1.5 to two hours per subject, compared to 3.5 to four hours for GCSEs.

Rather than receiving letter or number-based grades, young people would be awarded a certificate documenting their results, which would help them decide which courses to study beyond 15.

EDSK director Tom Richmond, a former adviser to the Department for Education, said the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to "consider how we can do things better".

"We should start by replacing high-stakes GCSEs with low-stakes digital assessments," he said.

"The flexibility offered by these digital tests will also help to Covid-proof our assessment system from any future external shocks.

"Putting hundreds of thousands of pupils through up to 30 hours of GCSE exams in order to sort them and their schools into successes and failures each year is a terrible use of precious time and money.

"While rigorous external tests can help to drive up educational standards, the continued presence of GCSEs prevents meaningful conversations about how we can build a world-class education system up to the age of 18, not 16."

A common theme emerging from discussions with school staff is the idea of a broader range of alternatives to GCSEs, in particular vocational qualifications.

Professor Tony Gallagher from Queen's School of Education said the experience of the pandemic underlined the already-established need for reform.

"Exams can measure what students know, or they can sort them into a pre-determined profile of grades in order to filter access to the next stage of the education system. The application of an algorithm to teacher assessments last year, and some of the extreme fluctuations it created, served as reminder that our exams ordinarily are geared towards the latter of those two purposes," he said.

"Those who say that written exams are better or fairer actually mean that they produce broadly consistent profiles over time, but this is only because an algorithm is applied to exam results precisely in order to create a broadly consistent profile. It actually means that the boundaries between GCSE or A-level grades can comprise a very small number of marks. That process may be reliable, but that need not mean that it is valid or accurate."

Prof Gallagher added that this also meant that exam results, as currently constituted, provided limited insight into whether `what students know' was improving or not.

"If we are going to use exams primarily to sort students for the next stage, let's stop pretending that the same exam system provides insight into the `educational health' of our system - there are other and better ways to measure this," he said.

"And if exam results are primarily about sorting students, then we need to change our focus into who gets sorted into which outcomes and whether there are any systemic biases in that process."

In 2004, former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson led a review that proposed an overarching diploma to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

The National Education Union (NEU) said failure to heed this was one of the great missed opportunities of the `New Labour' era which opened the door to coalition reforms in England.

Northern Ireland did not follow but nor can it wholly divorce itself from the English reforms, notably due to the high numbers seeking university places in Britain.

NEU Northern Ireland president Mark Langhammer said exams are not necessarily the most accurate way to determine the achievement of a student in a given discipline, and particularly terminal exams being used to determine a grade entirely.

He said they were more of a snapshot of performance on one day at one time, and a test of memory recall under pressure.

His union argues there should be more space for properly-moderated teacher judgements, which will be made with an overview of performance over a longer period of time, diminishing the effects of any one particularly `off day' for a pupil.

"As its name suggests, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, first introduced in 1988 to replace O-levels, has outgrown its original role," Mr Langhammer said.

"A certificate designed to serve as a final record of achievement for those who once left school at 16 now has much less meaning when all pupils stay on until 18.

"Even Lord Ken Baker, the Conservative minister who introduced GCSEs in 1988, can't quite believe GCSEs still form a backbone to the modern school's offer when the school leaving age is 18.

"As Ken Baker says: `When I took the equivalent in 1952, it was before O-levels. Ninety-three percent got a job at 16 when I took the exam. And so they had to clutch in their hands a certificate showing they'd achieved and that was very important.

"But the school leaving age is now 18, in effect. Education goes on from aged four to 18. So what are we testing young people at 16 for?'"

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