GCSEs: Which Side Are You On?

First the good news. The Guardian published an article this week posing the question, “What is the point of GCSEs?


It has followed this up with a column in todays’s paper written by Peter Wilby:


GCSEs are obsolete and have been for years. Let’s scrap them


For decades, it seems, there was total acceptance in the UK that GCSEs are a necessary and important part of our education system, if not THE most important part. It’s only now, with the extension of compulsory education to the age of 18, that questions are being raised about the need for high stakes exams at the age of 16.

This is not the time or place for us to reiterate the arguments against 16+ public exams – others, including Peter Wilby, have done it at great length elsewhere. Let us simply quote what Rob Wall of the Confederation of British Industry says in his Guardian contribution:

What employers value isn’t qualifications or academic results, it’s character and resilience. They want curious and creative people – we would like a curriculum better aligned to those outcomes. As we see the school-leaving age rising, we would question the value of high-stakes exams at 16 and would look more to outcomes at 18 – both academic and vocational.

Now the bad news. The Guardian article last Tuesday reflects the fact that the majority of us (including educationalists!) continue to believe that 16+ high stakes exams are an important (and possibly vital) part of our young people’s education. This fills us with dismay, not least because those arguing for retention of 16+ exams do so on the basis of what schools need, on what headteachers and teachers need, and NOT on the basis of whether these exams are detrimental to, let alone meet the needs of, young people.

gcse 2014

Let’s be clear about this. Young people do NOT need these 16+ exams. Finland, which for many years has been shown to have the highest-performing education system and also the highest levels of wellbeing for its young people, has high stakes tests only at the point when students finish their compulsory education (and may be considering further education) i.e. at the age of 18. (We are talking here only about national public examinations. Schools in Finland continue to set their own internal summative tests as part of their internal tracking and assessment systems.)

The majority of young people, especially the less academically able, dislike high stakes exams and often feel pressurised and distressed by them. Of course those at the top of the results pyramid (or is it a diamond?) may revel in them and feel validated by them, even though they admit  they promptly forget most of the “facts” they’ve committed to short-term memory almost as soon as the exams are over. Surely it’s the educational and personal interests of the majority of students that should have priority, if indeed we are ever going to base our system on the actual learning and developmental needs of children and young people.

That said, it’s not even in the long-term interests of the most academically successful to have a system that distorts and confines what is learned, and negatively impacts on how many young people develop as learners and as human beings. It’s not even in the interests of the nation state itself (“We need to compete in the global marketplace!” (c) Gove) to produce generations of young people who may have a handful of GCSEs but too often lack creativity, self-direction, imagination and a passion for lifelong learning for its own sake.

It seems to us that the majority of those who have thought long and hard about the aims and purposes of education have reached the conclusion that 16+ exams are an anachronism and are actually detrimental to young people as well as to society as a whole – see links below. The problem remains that the majority of us are apparently unconvinced that this is so, and Tuesday’s Guardian article does little to spread any enlightenment.

However, Russell Hobby (General Secretary of the NAHT) has this to say in the Guardian article –

With the school-leaving age going up to 18, it would make far more sense to have a 14-18 pathway with a single baccalaureate-style qualification at the end. You could build different pathways to suit academic versus vocational requirements, which would make sense in terms of what students need. Rather than doing academic work up to 16 and then vocational after 16, they’d be doing a blend of both from 14 onwards.

Well said, sir. We’ll return to Mr Hobby’s thoughts on the structure of the education system and on so-called “soft skills” in a future post.

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About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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