Pearson launches ‘major’ consultation into the future of exams amid calls for end to GCSEs


The exam board Pearson has launched a “major” consultation into the future of exams, following calls for GCSEs to be scrapped.

Former education secretaries Damian Hinds, Baroness Morris and Lord Blunkett will sit on an expert panel to advise and steer a research project looking at assessment and qualifications for young people aged between 14 and 19.

We have a responsibility to look further ahead and use this unique moment to consider all of the issues

The first part of the research will be a national six week consultation to get views from students, parents and the sector on how the assessment system can be “fit for the 21st century”.

The Covid-19 pandemic and cancellation of exams in 2020 and 2021 have led to a growing debate over the future of assessment, with calls for GCSEs to be scrapped.

Teacher assessments are to replace exams this year, with further details of the system due to be set out next week.

Rod Bristow, Pearson’s president of UK and global online learning, said Covid-19 will “force us all to adapt and rethink how we both educate and assess our young people”.

“While we work with the government, schools and colleges and other exam boards to make sure the system delivers for learners in 2021, we also have a responsibility to look further ahead and use this unique moment to consider all of the issues.”

Bristow said the public debate was so far “focussing narrowly” on whether GCSEs should be scrapped, “but we recognise that GCSEs are just one stage in the age 14 to 19 journey”.

“Coherence across all stages of education is essential and Covid aside, we need to ensure what young people learn, how they learn it and how it is assessed, is fit for the 21st century.”

Report expected later this year

Former education secretary David Blunkett

The findings of the consultation, launched today and open until March 31, will be published in an interim report in May this year. They will also inform a second phase of qualitative research by an “external research partner”. A final report is expected in the autumn.

The consultation will include externally commissioned and Pearson’s own surveys, research interviews, polling of MPs and video interviews with students.

The 22-strong expert panel will “guide” the project and “set the direction” for the second phase. Also on the panel are former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, Education Policy Institute chief executive Natalie Perera and Chartered College of Teaching CEO Dame Alison Peacock (see full list below).

Last year, Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said calls to scrap GCSEs deserved “serious consideration”.

She told Schools Week there was “a lot of compelling logic” in the case being made by campaigners, including former education secretary Lord Baker, for an end to testing at 16.

The consultation will consider three fundamental areas. These include the “shifting” requirements of the digital first generation, the role education within the 14 to 19 phase should play and fairness in the system to maintain public confidence in qualifications and assessment.

Regulator ‘interested’ in findings

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We are aware of the consultation and will of course be interested to review the findings when they are published.”

The DfE said: “Our reformed A level and GCSEs rigorously assess the knowledge acquired by students and are in line with expected standards in countries with high performing education systems – there are no plans for those qualifications to be reviewed or replaced.”


The expert panel members

  • Lord Baker, Secretary of State for Education (1986-1989)
  • Lord Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education (1997-2001)
  • Rebecca Boomer-Clark, Director Secondary, Ark
  • Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Chair, Universities UK
  • Daisy Christodoulou, Director of Education, No More Marking
  • Professor Robert Coe, Senior Associate, Education Endowment Foundation
  • Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute
  • Rt. Hon. Damian Hinds MP, Secretary of State for Education (2018-2019)
  • David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges
  • Joysy John, Edtech Advisor
  • Priya Lakhani, CEO, Century Tech
  • Barnaby Lenon, Professor and Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham
  • Clare Marchant, CEO, UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service)
  • Dame Alison Peacock, CEO, Chartered College of Teaching
  • Natalie Perera, Chief Executive, Education Policy Institute
  • Tom Middlehurst, Curriculum and Inspection Specialist, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)
  • Baroness Morris of Yardley, Secretary of State for Education (2001 – 2002)
  • Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Buckingham
  • Lord Storey, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson, House of Lords
  • Bill Watkin, CEO, Sixth Form College Association
  • Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, University College London
  • Lord Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science (2010 – 2014)
  • Sir Michael Wilshaw, Former HM Chief Inspector of Schools (2012 – 2016)

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  1. andrew32

    Exams should be online and on demand allowing students to progress at their own rate and being tested when ready. Many of the discipline problems in school are caused by students becoming bored and distracted when they are not suitably challenged. I tried this a number of years ago with students taking GCSE Human Physiology and Health at the end of year 8 after being 1 hour a week in school with the rest of the learning material online. All students passed with grade C or above. The students in their mainstream lessons then had another three years in school to take GCSE Biology which was less challenging. Students gaining grades early could then be offered either higher level courses or more practical based courses to broaden their skills and experiences. Speaking to the father of one of these students recently he informed me that his daughter now works as a surgeon at a London hospital and told him that she chose this career because of her enjoyment of the course in year 8. Our current education system holds back the more able and reduces our ability to support the less able.

  2. Jim McAtear

    Until the perverse accountability systems are completely scrapped schools won’t be free to educate children properly. This is the absolute key to it. All the current system does is encourage cheating, fear, off rolling and the stigmatising of schools with poorer children.

  3. Janet Downs

    It’s taken a pandemic to consider what many of us have been advocating for years: an end to high-stakes tests at 16 and a move towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes. Any tests, GCSEs or others, taken at the end of lower secondary (age15/16) should be for the benefit of students only and used together with teacher assessment to decide upper secondary progression.

  4. 15 years or more of Government policy, ‘High Stakes’ testing, league tables and Ofsted inspections, whether this is in early years, primary or secondary, have combined to narrow down the curriculum in all of our state schools. We have lost breadth, balance, and more importantly, relevance. There is now a much greater emphasis on a ‘one way fits all’ mentality of delivering education. Teachers and leaders are doing their best to provide high quality education but are under significant pressure to follow the narrow pathways to which they are directed. It is not surprising that a large proportion of children in our schools are turned off learning. There are ways of engaging children in learning that captures their interests, that helps to connect learning in schools to what is happening in the world today and into the future. Unless we open our eyes to the damage this the current approach is causing to the younger generation we will not be able to achieve a fully inclusive education system. We have to make the classroom more relevant to the current and future lives of the young. We need to put trust in the teachers’ and children’s abilities to make learning choices and to assess the progress they are making towards becoming effective 21st century learners. The solutions are there if only we look globally and not inwardly.

  5. A move to a more relevant education system – developing skills and attitudes alongside knowledge is long overdue. Digital skills and using technology for research, with explicit teaching of both academic honesty and inquiry into information sources and perspectives has been the IB approach for some time.

    The e- assessments for MYP at 16 are downloaded to the students laptop -give real world examples eg video from biology lab of microbes, and encourage problem solving with the integration of digital skills. I am surprised there is no one on this committee, or maybe I am wrong, with experience in the MYP – where the e assessments are the equivalent to GCSEs.