The future of public examinations for 16-year-olds?
Updated: Aug 10
GCSEs were brought in to revolutionise the education system in 1988, replacing the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) and the more academically challenging O‘ Levels, with a one-size-fits-all examination and course work qualification for those wishing to leave formal education at the age of 16.
Changes over the past three decades include the addition of the A* rating, a more modular assessment and coursework-based syllabus and, more recently a wholesale change that means that by 2020, all courses will be assessed solely at the end of a two-year period with examinations, removing interim modular assessment and coursework. We also saw in 2017 the introduction of a new 9-1 grading system (9 = highest grade) being phased in to reflect a more demanding curriculum.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, stated, this week, that GCSEs should be scrapped, with A‘ Levels being replaced by a broader range of academic and vocational subjects, studied to the age of 18. This radical rewriting of the exam system for England has its foundations firmly entrenched in giving young people a far broader range of skills for their working lives.
The former education minister reinforces the view of many employers, that young people are leaving school without the necessary skills required for the workplace. The skills shortage is a frequently reported issue, where industry leaders voice concerns that the present UK education system leaves young people completely ill-equipped for managing their time, skills and capabilities within the working environment.
The website Small Business Prices has produced an infographic to highlight the severity of the skills gap throughout the UK.
Lord Baker, who introduced GCSEs as part of his education reforms in the 1980s whilst in post as education secretary, has recently been quoted by BBC News saying, “the days of GCSEs are numbered”. This sentiment is supported by head teachers’ leader Geoff Barton, who is reported as saying that the idea of replacing GCSE and A‘ Level exams with a baccalaureate system has a “lot of merit” and that the exams at 16 and 18 belonged in an era when young people left education at 16.
Instead of taking academic subjects at GCSE and A‘ Level, Mr Halfon prefers a broader curriculum covering a mix of scientific, artistic and vocational subjects for all, with exams taken at the age of 18.
The Department of Education shows no sign of supporting calls to scrap GCSEs and claims that the most recent figures show that 47% of young people stay on to study A‘ Levels post GCSE.
Mr Halfon continues, to state that England has been trapped in a false division between academic and vocational study, which is failing to prepare young people for technological changes in the workplace citing “The march of the robots” and the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics, as examples.
Removing GCSEs, of course has its drawbacks. What would become of schools without a sixth form offering? Do the young people leave these educational institutions without any formal qualifications? Do these schools strive for brilliance without any focus on public examinations? In addition, without AS levels or GCSEs, University or vocational course applications, or even applications for Apprenticeships would be made without any formal benchmark for those assessing applications to draw conclusions about the person’s capabilities. What of those young people who chose not to continue with formal study after 16 years old? Do they then continue into the workplace without any formal qualifications?
That said, the proposal has the backing of many significant stake holding groups. For example, Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union stated recently that “GSCEs are a product of a different era when many young people left education at the age of 16, but this is no longer the case and young people are now expected to remain in full-time education or training until the age of 18. It would therefore make a great deal of sense to replace GCSEs with some sort of light-touch assessment which would help determine post 16 routes rather than persisting with high-stakes GCSEs.”
Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Edge Foundation, an independent education charity dedicated to shaping the future of education in the UK, states that “the plans reflect the concerns not only of parents, teachers and pupils themselves, but employers and business leaders. Technology is moving at such a rapid pace and change is happening so quickly, we are failing young people if we do not enable them to develop the adaptability and the critical skills they need.”
With little appetite to discuss future reform past the present 2020 plans for all GCSE subjects, the Department for Education is unlikely to endorse such a radical step in the near future. A spokesman for the DfE said that vocational options had been improved, with apprenticeships and the new T-Level technical qualifications. He continued to pedestal GCSEs as “the gold standard qualifications at age 16 and a passport to further study and employability.” He continued to report that GCSEs had “recently reformed so that their demand matches that in other high performing countries and better prepare students for work and further study.”
With Robert Halfon’s radical rewrite unlikely to curry favour with government leaders, young people who find academic study less appetising would potentially do well to review the options that T-levels and Apprenticeships offer. In the meantime, the debate will rumble on as to where the responsibilities lie in addressing the growing skills gap challenging the employers of future generations.