We should get rid of GCSEs and A-levels and make universities design their own entrance systems, argues Ed Cadwallader

As the curtain rises on Michael Gove’s attempt to rebrand ‘999’ as a cause for celebration, lots of people will be asking whether the switch from letter to number grades at GCSE was worth the millions of pounds it cost. Better questions, though, are why we have school qualifications at all, and whether, however they are graded, they do more harm than good.

Grading students means we have to cast some as failures. The new GCSEs are norm-referenced, so a grade 4, a “standard pass”, or better is only available to 70 per cent of students. But even if the exams were criteria-referenced, the lowest grades would still be considered fails.

“That’s life,” as people who got high grades like to say, but the children at the bottom are our fellow citizens; we all suffer if they don’t learn as much as they could in school – and they won’t learn much at all if in return for their honest efforts, all school offers them is the chance to fail a little less badly.

We plough their minds with salt

Educational achievement is a limitless resource; only when we use it to rank children do we create an artificial scarcity. If a farmer applied a chemical trace to measure the nutrient content of his crops but the trace poisoned them and reduced his yields, we would think him crazy, but we do something even worse. The children who fail do not only underachieve while at school: the association they make between learning and humiliation puts them off education for life. We plough their minds with salt.

The positive case for qualifications says that children need to demonstrate their achievement to future employers, but it is highly questionable whether grades act as a currency of any value in this regard. It’s the norm for job applications to require applicants to complete an extended writing task, which is as much about assessing English skills as it is a need to know the details of when you “worked as part of team to solve a problem”. Some employers have stopped considering academic qualifications altogether, even before the introduction of a system under which most people probably can’t say whether a 1 is better than a 9.

University entrance does require some kind of academic selection but the privileged minority it affects need not impact the education of everyone else. Instead, if determining university entrance is the goal, universities themselves should control the testing process. They, unlike commercial exam boards, wouldn’t have an incentive to produce predictable papers amenable to teaching to the test. They would be able to select for the qualities they want, which they so often claim current students lack.

To many in education, the use of qualifications for job and university applications is a sideshow compared to the context in which they dominate SLT meetings and school improvement initiatives: as school performance indicators. The legacy of data-driven accountability since the creation of Ofsted in the early 90s is a mixed one. Few would deny that with greater scrutiny has come higher standards, but this benefit has brought with it greater pressure to change the curriculum to maximise points scores.

We prostitute learning by making it just a means to acquire grades

We could keep and even enhance the benefits of school accountability by testing samples of pupils from all year groups prior to school inspections. As the results would not be meaningful for individual pupils, the transparency required to ensure the fairness of GCSEs and A-levels would not be necessary, making it that much harder to teach to the test. It could also end the absurdity of neglecting KS3 in favour of a mad rash of interventions for year 11.

Though the practical hurdles are surmountable, a change as profound as scrapping qualifications would have to pass the test that numbered GCSEs may fail; proving that change is worth the disruption. I believe it is; if you told a GCSE class that their lessons were cancelled and they would all receive A grades, they would be happy with an item of value obtained below cost, rather than disappointed because an opportunity to learn was taken away. We prostitute learning by making it just a means to acquire grades; when students scorn anything not on the syllabus they are following the logic of the system.

Knowledge is a thing of great value and a bringer of great joy. But because we use it to compare and classify, children revolt against the stigma of failure and schools are hampered by the mesh of perverse incentives. Qualifications, however they are graded, are a barrier in the way of an excellent education for all. They should be scrapped.

Ed Cadwallader is a consultant at Roots School Improvement