Exams: GCSE reform isn’t as simple as stick or twist

As clamour grows for post-Covid GCSE reform, it’s important we listen to the opinions of all those concerned, writes Colin Hughes

As clamour grows for post-Covid GCSE reform, it’s important we listen to the opinions of all those concerned, writes Colin Hughes

24 Oct 2021, 5:00

It’s hardly surprising (and no bad thing) that GCSE qualifications have come under heightened scrutiny following exam cancellations in 2020 and 2021. Two years of grade inflation and teacher assessment naturally intensify the argument about why we need them and what they’re for.

Even Kenneth Baker, their original architect, has called for GCSEs to be scrapped. Along with other critics on both sides of the party-political divide, he doubts that we need a 16-plus hurdle when students all now remain in education to age 18.

But not all critics conduct the debate with Lord Baker’s grasp of the issues. When you peel apart their concerns, it becomes clear that many centre more on the way GCSEs affect the curriculum, or approaches to teaching, than the qualification itself. Critics whose comments are headed “abolish” often turn out to be calling for content reform.

The risk in all this is we find ourselves judging a falsely diametric opposition: either we keep GCSEs as they are, or we abandon them in favour of something radically different.

Actually, the most striking feature of GCSEs is how versatile and adaptable they have proved over the years. Hundreds have been created and replaced during the lifetime of the qualification.

People mistakenly think that changing the curriculum automatically means getting rid of GCSEs. Of course, an assessment used to measure so-called “soft skills” (creativity, problem-solving, teamwork…) looks different from one designed to assess grasp of knowledge. But existing GCSEs in over 50 different subjects already assess students in many different ways, including teacher assessment and coursework.

There’s no evidence GCSEs have lost public confidence

Also, many people who call for the complete deletion of assessment at 16 fail to explain what we’re going to do about the fact that well over half of all students change institution at that age. Any would-be reformer should have to explain what these young people will take with them.

Exams influence massively what’s taught and how, and so they should be exposed to constant review to ensure they reflect changing social expectations, as well as educational needs. Above all, any qualification that lacks broad public support is an empty shell.

The fact is, though, there’s no evidence GCSEs have lost that public confidence. On the contrary. Surveys of teachers and parents during the pandemic consistently showed that large majorities want to return to exams as soon as possible because they see them as more rigorously fair and objectively transparent than the alternatives.

And what do students themselves think? Where is their voice?

If you follow teenage social media in a normal exam year (as many of us at AQA do!) you probably think you know the answer. Students emerge from each exam with ever more inventive memes bemoaning the papers they’ve just taken. So surely you’d expect general student support for their demise?

Well, no. Quite the opposite.

AQA recently commissioned a poll of 1,001 young people in England who took GCSEs before the pandemic. Three-quarters of them said they were glad they’d sat them. The vast majority said their grades enabled them to move forward to the next stage of their lives and helped inform their decisions about what to do next. Most also reported that preparing for their GCSE exams helped motivate them, and helped prepare them for exams they took in subsequent years.

Not all the responses were rosy. Most young people thought GCSEs were too academic, and a lot thought they’d done too many. And students who attained lower grades were conspicuously less enthusiastic about the value of the qualification.

What you take away from these findings will probably come down to which side of the debate you’re on: there is clearly strong student support for GCSEs, but also an obvious steer that the qualifications aren’t working as well as they could for everyone. But it’s important we hear what young people are saying in these findings. The next generation of students, perhaps especially because they have been afflicted by the pandemic, deserve an informed and balanced debate about the future of GCSEs, and one that reflects their lived experience.

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  1. “There’s no evidence GCSEs have lost public confidence.”

    I wonder how many members of the public know that, to use Ofqual’s own words, that exam “grades are reliable to one grade either way” – presumably implying that a grade 7, say, might be an 8, or perhaps a 6, but no one knows.

    Or that, on average, on any GCSE certificate with 8 grades, two of the grades are likely to be wrong, but no one knows which, tor which way. (A brash allegation, indeed – but true: see https://rethinkingassessment.com/rethinking-blogs/just-how-reliable-are-exam-grades/).

    AQA have known about the unreliability of grades since at least 2005, for page 70 of an AQA report states:

    “However, to not routinely report the levels of unreliability associated with examinations leaves awarding bodies open to suspicion and criticism. For example, Satterly (1994) suggests that the dependability of scores and grades in many external forms of assessment will continue to be unknown to users and candidates because reporting low reliabilities and large margins of error attached to marks or grades would be a source of embarrassment to awarding bodies. Indeed it is unlikely that an awarding body would unilaterally begin reporting reliability estimates or that any individual awarding body would be willing to accept the burden of educating test users in the meanings of those reliability estimates.”


    So here are two statements, both from AQA: “reporting low reliabilities and large margins of error attached to marks or grades would be a source of embarrassment” (2005)

  2. …oh! I hit the send button too soon… I meant to end that with:

    So here are two statements, both from AQA:

    “because reporting low reliabilities and large margins of error attached to marks or grades would be a source of embarrassment” (2005)


    “There’s no evidence GCSEs have lost public confidence” (24 Oct 2021)