GCSEs should be scrapped by 2025 and replaced by computer-based assessments in the majority of national curriculum subjects, a think tank has said.

A new report from EDSK, released today, calls for an overhaul of secondary education in England.

Tom Richmond, EDSK director and former adviser to both Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, said the “unprecedented events” brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have created “a rare opportunity to consider how we can do things better in future”.

These are the key findings and recommendations:

GCSEs are too expensive and too restrictive

The think tank argues that the use of a ‘school leaving qualification’ like GCSEs at 16 are redundant in a system where students are required to stay in education until 18.

EDSK states it costs an estimated £200 million to deliver current GCSE exams – equivalent to £52,000 per school – and the use of a ‘comparable outcomes’ grading system means a pre-determined proportion of pupils will always be awarded the lowest marks.

In addition, the report finds the introduction of Ebacc and Progress 8 measures has led to academic GCSE subjects being prioritised – with the average number of subjects studied at Key Stage 4 dropping from 11.2 in 2010-11 to 7.7 in 2019.


Swap high stakes for low stakes

Tom Richmond

Richmond states that the high-stakes GCSEs should be replaced with low-stakes digital assessments at 15 which act as a ‘staging post’ for pupils working through secondary education.

The computer-based assessments would test pupils understating of essential knowledge and key concepts, but instead of receiving a grade each pupil will be awarded a certificate that documents their results.

Assessments will be shortened to 1.5-2 hours for each subject, down from the current 3.5-4 hours.

Additionally, the report states the “flexibility” of digital assessments will help future proof the school system and allow schools to “Covid-proof’ assessments in coming years.


How would this work in practice?

To underpin a single approach to assessment, EDSK recommends splitting England’s secondary education system into two phases – Lower Secondary (ages 11-15) and Upper Secondary (15-18).

The existing national curriculum subject entitlements will be extended to 15 and made mandatory for all schools – including academies.

In all national curriculum subjects, apart from those with a significant practical element such as art, an online assessment will be completed in the summer term.

Students will then be awarded a ‘Lower Secondary Certificate’ which documents results across all subjects and their percentile rank (the percentage of pupils who scored lower).

‘Comparable outcomes’ will be scrapped and after sitting the assessments pupils will then be free to choose which type of course and qualifications they want to pursue as they move on to Upper Secondary.


What would it mean for schools?

To accommodate the two phases of the secondary system, existing secondary schools would either reduce their provision by one year group or expand to become 11-18 institutions.

Middle schools, which currently go up to age 13, will likewise reduce provision by two year groups or expand upwards to age 15.

At Lower Secondary level, schools will be held accountable to two measures which are calculated as three-year rolling averages – progress and attainment.

Both measures will be reported on a scale of ‘well above average’, ‘above average’, ‘average’, ‘below average’ or ‘well below average’.

Progress will be the average progress learners make between SATs at age 11 and Lower Secondary tests at 15, relative to progress made by learners in other schools with similar SAT results.

While attainment will be the overall score achieved by learners across the test along with their average scores in each subject.