Speed read: Think tank calls for GCSEs to be scrapped by 2025


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.


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  1. Edward Vine

    COVID has exposed the weaknesses in our UK education system, not least, as the recent letter from Robert Halfon MP and friends in the Sunday Times alludes, because we are still following a Victorian batch production factory model. The secondary school system upwards needs to be brought into the 21st Century and the best of ed tec and AI employed to improve learning: for a start, free broadband and the provision of a laptop must be the new normal, as essential as pen and paper once were.
    What online teaching and learning through the periods of lockdown have shown is that far from being left behind, given the right access many children leap ahead whilst others who may have hung back in a classroom find a voice and ask those “silly” questions that they and others need to ask to make swifter progress. Online teaching enables teachers teach using project based integrated and interdisciplinary learning, children find such projects that don’t require being glued to a screen or them to march in unison more interesting and motivating and the format enables teachers to tailor learning far more effectively to individual needs than ever before. To help with this process we need to create the schools equivalent of The Open University: The Open School, able to deliver courses, resources through schools and teachers and to provide a means that revolutionises monitoring, assessment, reporting and examining. Such a system can function in normal times, would be well suited to blended learning and can step up in lockdown.
    Time also to change ks3 Lower Secondary School learning and to ditch the downward percolation of the GCSE straightjacket and build on the creativity and practices found in the best Primary and Junior schools. The report in 2014 by Avril McDonald “Not for people like me..” for WISE clearly shows that at about yr 7 / 8, we lose most students from the STEAM subjects. Breaking out of the subject silos at ks3 and moving into an integrated STEaMplus mode of interdisciplinary project based learning would help solve this problem. The IB uses interdisciplinary learning units and a six subject Diploma at 6th form level, we found that 40 % of girls and boys graduated from year 13 into steam associated courses and careers.
    The Sunday Times letter mentioned an English Baccalaureate, having taught in one England’s more successful schools, an IB school, I’d say that we really must look seriously at the various highly successful IB approaches and then take the opportunity to build new and build better.

  2. Jackie christy

    I cannot stress enough the damage this method will do to our children.there are enough studies for us to understand that digital teaching is
    In affective
    Harmful to eyesight
    Creates mental illness
    Is highly unfair for creative students
    If this is allowed to happen,you know as well as I do we are walking into a global disaster of an unprecedented own studies have shown that
    Connection to nature and each other is the only real way forwards, anything else means the collapse of humanity,I don’t think you want to be responsible for this,do you?

  3. Having spent 8 years working in a secondary school I find this frightening. The amount of cheating I saw by teachers and headmasters to get the school a good reputation was beyond belief. I’ve seen teachers write assessments for students who would never have passed a GCSE otherwise. Some students sat listening to music whilst their assessments were being written for them. Others had so many notes given to them they only needed to copy them. The bottom line is teachers cheat as their pay rise is dependent on good results.

  4. ProTeaching

    Yes, scrap GCSEs and overhaul the system. No, do not convert to online teaching – avoid this at all costs. Almost none of my students from disadvantaged backgrounds completed any work and when they did, they focused on the Golden Three subjects only. If you haven’t taught in (inner city) secondary schools – please refrain from sharing your opinion on this as online teaching massively further disadvantages those children in society who need support from their teachers and peers where they don’t always get it at home. Further, because I doubt league tables will be scrapped when the system is finally overhauled, teachers and SLT will continue cheating – as they always have – if online teaching is permitted and will in fact, become even easier. How would Ofsted / inspectors monitor that students’ work is their own? That they didn’t complete assignments or assessments ‘open book’? Also curious how children would learn to socialise or work in pairs / groups if they are always at home? How would they bond with their classmates? Online teaching is a cop out and wholly unsuitable for socialising and raising children, plus providing an all-round education – P.E. lessons? And just an opportunity to get out of the house! Parents work and even if they WFH, they need peace and quiet in a home office free from distractions. Anyway, the OP is about scrapping GCSEs / comparable outcomes (about time) and creating a better system of in-person schooling – this is a much-needed step in the right direction but don’t make the same mistakes as every system that came before: scrap anything that leads to tick-boxing and ‘fake’ education. Scrap accountability (or leave it firmly with students and parents, assuming adequate support is provided in the school) and scrap league tables. Or make them private. And rethink Ofsted. And involve students and parents in the development of any new curriculum – students are so enthusiastic about learning up to Year 7 but by Year 8 the compulsory learning styles and fixed classroom environment and activities stifles all the enjoyment out of it for them. It’s their learning. Ask them how and what they want to learn. Make the subjects relevant to the real world and the actual job market – stop forcing every child to read Shakespeare and start teaching them basic computer skills including how to use Office applications. It’s time to update the curriculum and give students at least a basic understanding of how the country works – make How Britain Really Works compulsory reading in English class, for example. That’s a start.