Replace GCSE English language with 'passport to English', says ASCL commission

GCSE English language should be replaced with a “passport in English” qualification to be taken flexibly between the ages of 15 and 19, according to a commission set up to look into the plight of those left behind by the current exam system.

ASCL’s “forgotten third” commission has recommended the introduction of a new “competency-based qualification” consisting of online assessment, a portfolio of a student’s writing and a significant spoken English component to replace the GCSE, which focuses on “a restrictive choice of writing tasks with an emphasis on literary analysis” and leaves many pupils behind.

Schools Week revealed in March that the commission, chaired by Roy Blatchford, was looking at how a “stage not age” testing system might work for English pupils. The inquiry was established in response to concerns about the “forgotten third” of pupils who don’t achieve a grade 4 – the government’s standard pass – in their GCSEs.

The commission’s proposed passport qualification would not have to be taken at the age of 16, but at some point when pupils are between the ages of 15 and 19. This would put an end to the need for pupils who don’t pass to continue to re-sit their GCSEs during sixth form or college, a reform that has proved both costly and disruptive.

The passport should be certificated by a body with “international standing”, and with “employer approval and branding”, said the commission, adding that similar consideration be given to a companion passport in Maths.

The government’s current system of comparable outcomes means that roughly the same proportion of pupils score below a grade 4 every year.

The system has existed for many years, but critics say the introduction of the new GCSE grading system and the government’s designation of a grade 4 as a “standard pass” and grade 5 as a “strong” pass has made matters worse, leaving pupils who don’t make the grade feeling a greater sense of failure.

The commission recommends the terms “strong” and “standard” pass are abandoned, and calls for a cross-sector review of GCSE, which it describes as “rooted in testing and assessment designed for a different era”.

“It cannot be right or sensible that we continue to operate a system that is designed to ‘fail’ one-third of young people every year in order that two-thirds succeed,” said Blatchford. “The third who we consign to this fate are left utterly dejected and with reduced chances for progression in education and careers.

“A good command of English language is the key to understanding and accessing every other subject in the curriculum, and to confidence in society and the workplace in general. We must do more to ensure that every young person has good literacy skills and to recognise their achievements through a robust qualification which supports students to develop their level of competency rather than acting as a cliff edge.”

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, called the passport recommendation “groundbreaking” which he said would make the exam system “a more humane and supportive experience which better reflects the optimistic, modern and forward-thinking nation we need to be”.

“It would allow every young person the dignity of achieving a qualification of which they can be proud,” he said.

“We hope policymakers will greet this proposal with an open mind and not resort to the tired old argument that GCSE represents a gold standard and anything else is a form of dumbing down.”