How we could abandon GCSEs and make 14-19 education work

Expecting students to take a plethora of exams at 16 makes little sense in a modern context. By stripping back the number of externally-assessed subjects for this age group, we could introduce far greater flexibility into our education system

To my mind, many of the reforms to qualifications made in the life cycle of the coalition government were heading in the right direction, but did not go far enough. Current reforms lean too heavily on accountability at the expense of feedback on progress.

Since students’ future progression depends almost entirely on the outcomes of their performance in assessments during their upper secondary school and college experiences, I would like to put forward an alternative plan – concentrating on key stage 4 but with implications for the 14-19 spectrum that, while still giving accountability its due, does not make it the be-all and end-all of secondary education.

There are GCSE examinations in more than 70 subjects, offered by five different examination boards. Although current reforms will reinstate the linear, end-of-course examination structure, certain subjects will still be examined more than once a year (mathematics and English). GCSE results are used for so many purposes that their principal purpose seems to have been lost in the mist.

GCSE results’ principal purpose seems to have been lost

There are various ways we could reduce the complexity of accountability, make expectations more realistic and minimise perverse incentives.

For example, we could only assess externally when there is a very strong justification for doing so. Some formal external assessments, at important transition points are necessary, mainly to support accountability purposes (for example key stage 2 tests at the end of primary school). But where external assessment adds little to internal assessment, or when wholly external assessment is simply not feasible, perhaps we should not attempt to do so.

In addition, we could abandon the presumption that Year 11 students should be examined across a large suite of general qualifications. Now that the age of participation in education or training has been raised to 18, there is little to justify 16-year-olds taking a plethora of general qualifications.

In line with the notion of only assessing externally when there is a very strong justification, I recognise the widespread desire for some formal external assessment at 16 for secondary school accountability purposes. But I do not believe this purpose is best served by current external qualifications.

Instead we could abandon the GCSE examination and, for accountability purposes, introduce a small set of national curriculum tests to be sat at the end of key stage 4. This core set would include English and mathematics and perhaps other subjects (for example, some or all of the EBacc subjects). The tests could be developed by an independent agency, similar to the Standards and Testing Agency that operates in England now, and free from government interference.

To ensure all students get the opportunity to acquire powerful knowledge, it would be compulsory to study the EBacc subjects at least until age 16; other subjects would be optional, and would be assessed internally. Fewer tests naturally entail smaller costs, but more importantly return the focus to curriculum rather than qualifications. It is important to note that internal assessment would work only as long as schools and teachers were not held directly accountable in a punitive way for their results from key stage 3 onwards. An even more radical alternative would be only to test English and mathematics at age 16, with the remaining tests to be taken by age 18, allowing weaker students continued access to core subjects.

Or, another alternative would be the Scandinavian model, where students must prepare for testing in all of the subjects but with only two or three of those to be tested each year on a rotating (and as random as possible) basis.

These recommendations represent major sacrifices. Yet, to borrow the ‘lifeboat’ game metaphor: when the lifeboat is sinking, the unacceptable compromise of which family members to save becomes very real indeed. To avoid our test and examination systems sinking, we need to take evasive action. If we are prepared to make sacrifices like these, then we might be able to re-orient the system to promote good teaching and learning.

This article is an extract from Dr Tina Isaacs’ chapter ‘What constitutes real qualifications reform?’ in Changing Schools, edited by Robert Peal and published by John Catt Educational on June 1.

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