What’s the point of GCSE’s?

In June 1984 Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education, announced that CSE’s and O-levels would be merged to form a single qualification known as the GCSE. The aim, in his words, was ‘to improve the examination courses and to raise the standard of performance of all candidates’. In the three decades since GCSE’s have been sat by all students passing through secondary education, either as a precursor to A-levels or as a final qualification before leaving education for good.

Now changes to the school leaving age mean that GCSE’s will no longer be some young people’s last encounter with the education system. Staying in school (or college) until they are 18 means that they will leave school with some form of higher qualification, either in the shape of A-levels or a more vocational alternative. Having been stripped of the chance of being a final assessment of students’ academic aptitude, now seems a good time to ask what purpose they still serve.

I can think of two main justifications for retaining the qualification. The first is about accountability. Without GCSE’s, how would we be able to judge how good a school is? The useful thing about having common qualifications that all (or almost all) 16 year olds sit is that they give us a way to compare schools against each other. Given the increasing prominence being afforded to the concept of choice in education it is important that information is available that helps parents decide which school is best. The problem with this is that GCSE’s don’t really do this, or at least they don’t do it very well. A school where 95% of students get five good GCSE’s may well be worse than one where only 70% of students do – it depends on what level students are at before they join. Even if you address this by using a more nuanced measure of GCSE performance, you are still faced with the problem that any measure will only tell you how good a school is at getting students through their GCSE exams rather than how good it is at ensuring students actually learn. Obviously there is an overlap between the two, but it is not as big as it should be. In most schools across the UK there is a fundamental disconnect between the imperative of learning and the incentives created by GCSE performance measures (the recent trend towards multiple exam entries is just one example). At best GCSE’s provide a small and imperfect snapshot of how good a school is – hardly an irreplaceable part of the system of school accountability.

The second potential justification invokes the direct benefits of the qualification. It could be argued that the process of students studying for exams at the age of 16 is in itself valuable; it provides a clear purpose to their study, gives them experience of high stakes examinations (which they are bound to encounter at some point anyway) and provides a solid foundation for further study. Again the problem is that in practice GCSE’s fail to live up to such a billing. In their current form they often prove a distraction from things that should be at the heart of education, such as deepening understanding and providing students with valuable core knowledge. Addressing deep misconceptions and establishing the fundamentals might be important, but it is far more efficient for many schools to coach students to answer questions in a way that conforms to the narrow and esoteric mark schemes. Being able to give a correct answer in a GCSE exam can be a poor proxy for learning, particularly if the process by which the student learns the answer is regarded as unimportant in comparison to the fact that they know it. One indication of this problem is that apart from the enormous increase in GCSE attainment over the last twenty years there is very little other evidence to support the claim that standards of education have risen (as observed here).

Some of these problems may well be unavoidable side effects of high stakes assessment. What makes them particularly inexcusable is that we immediately follow one set of high stakes test with another. Students who go on to take A-levels (or an equivalent) spend the final four years of their education specifically working towards exams with all of the downsides that entails. Moreover, the incentives are sufficiently misaligned so that often GCSE’s prove inadequate preparation for A-levels, consigning many students to failure (31% of students drop-out) in their AS-levels and leaving them disillusioned with education altogether. Getting rid of GCSE’s would not transform the quality of education overnight (contrary to the lofty rhetoric of politicians over the last 15 years, nothing will). It would also necessarily entail some other major changes to the school system, not least in the way in which schools are held accountable (something that desperately needs reform anyway). But it would undoubtedly be a sensible first step on the long road to realigning educational practice with its real objectives.

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