Getting your GCSE results is big day for most 16-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – as well as for their parents and schools.
GCSEs have been a national rite of passage for the last 30 years. The first students sat GCSEs in 1988 when GCSEs replaced O levels and CSEs as the single school leaving age qualification.
When GCSEs were first introduced in the 1980s around half of 16-year-olds stayed on in education –- whether A-levels or vocational education. And GCSEs served two purposes –- preparation and entry to post-16 education, or for employers to use in recruiting 16-year-olds.
But since 2011, the school leaving age has been effectively raised to 18 and nearly everyone stays on or goes into training courses with some sort of formal education aspects. So given this is there still a need for national high stakes exams at 16?
A brief history of GCSEs
Over the years GCSEs have changed a lot. After their initial introduction, lots of qualifications were introduced that were equivalent to GCSEs in school league tables and for entry to further study. Some of these counted as equivalent to more than one GCSE. But these were later outlawed because of concerns about schools “gaming” the system.
Coursework and practical work also used to be an essential part of GCSEs. In 2006, course work varied between 20% and 65% by subject in the most popular exams, with most students assessed in English literature through 100% coursework. But coursework is largely a thing of the past. This has caused particular problems for subjects like science with practical skills now assessed in exams.
GCSEs are currently going through a radical change. In many ways, it means that the old GCSEs are being replaced, even though the name isn’t. The most eye catching change is the switch from grading by letters to numbers. Before A* was the highest and G the lowest grade. From 2017, in English and maths, and from 2018 in most other subjects, grades go from nine being the highest to grade one the lowest. Part of the reason for this is that exams have got harder, as governments try to push England, Wales and Northern Ireland up the PISA league tables.
Tackling grade inflation?
But one of the other biggest changes to the GCSE is not so obvious. In the old GCSEs, each grade had a description of the sort of content and skills that students were supposed to know to achieve that grade. So the marks for each grade were decided by the examiners before the exams were taken. But in the new GCSE, the number of students who can achieve a particular grade is largely set in advance. And the number of marks needed is set after marking.
The percentage for each grade is influenced by the overall results the 16-year-old cohort achieved in national exams when they were 11. This is intended to address concerns with grade inflation – that is more students each year achieving higher grades. But there are all sorts of unintended consequences.
It creates a zero sum game – where the only way a school can do better is if another school does worse. And it doesn’t allow for schools as a whole to get better at helping students to learn more between 11 and 16.
And because GCSEs continue to be high stakes and harder, there is even more pressure on teachers and children leading to stress and affecting well-being and mental health. Increasingly, schools start GCSE courses early, putting pressure on younger children and squeezing out time for important parts of education. It must really be asked then, what do GCSEs actually test beyond the capacity of children to cram for tests and schools to prepare them for this?
What’s the alternative?
One possible alternative to GCSEs is to develop a flexible 14 to 18 curriculum that meets the needs of all learners, as well as employers and universities. Part of this would include rigorous formative assessment that lets students and teachers know how pupils are progressing.
To know how the system as a whole is doing, samples of students could be tested at schools selected at random in a similar way to PISA tests or the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US. To assess individual schools the focus could be on outcomes at 18 or even what happens later on at 21 in terms of jobs and university.
This would lead to longer-term thinking about educational outcomes, rather than the short-term focus as happens in some US “no excuses” charter schools, whose students do well when they leave but fail later.
Recently, standards body Ofsted floated the idea that exams at 16 are not the best judge of school quality – though the government has since pushed back on this idea. Regardless, there are reasons to think that the current version of GCSEs are past their sell by date even before they have even got going.