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Rethinking GCSE Examinations

The key to re-thinking GCSEs is to consider their fundamental purpose. GCSEs, and their predecessor O-levels, were designed as an end point summative assessment of young people’s academic subject based attainment, at sixteen.  However, young people are now required to stay in full-time education, start an apprenticeship/traineeship or spend 20+ hours a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training, until they are 18 years old.  Sixteen is now a staging post rather than an end point. 

In two really interesting pieces, Geoff Barton (Will Students Pay for the Lack of Plan B) and Laura McInerney (England’s exam system is broken – let’s never put it together again) consider the muddled meddling at the edges concerning next year’s examinations and the impact of teacher assessments – that led to a significant increase in this year’s GCSE grades – on future GCSE grading.  There is a sense it is time for a rethink.

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GCSEs are currently trying to serve too many masters: they act as the gatekeepers to Level 3 post-16 programmes; are utilised within the accountability system; are part of the evidence universities use when deciding who to offer places to on their various courses and they provide pupils with a graded record of their subject based academic attainment.  By far and away the most compelling reason to retain an “examination system” at 16 is the first.  However, rather than a summative certificate young people now require a passport and signpost to the most appropriate option post-16.

It will be hard to wean pupils, parents and maybe many other stakeholders off the U/1-9 GCSE grading system, previously A*-G/U.  There is a sense of meritocracy and justice about the awarding of grades.  The problem is, even on a cursory glance, the grading correlates too highly with factors – most notably socio-economic advantage/disadvantage – that are beyond the direct control of schools and the pupils within them.  

The reliability of marking in some subjects is relatively poor.  As such, the certainty that we have the correct and just grades for each pupil, based on a few hours of terminal examinations, is suspect.  Add in the issue that pupils whose marks are towards the top of any grade range have more in common with the attainment of the pupils in the grade above than those at the bottom of the grade they have been awarded.  This is a basic problem encountered by all grading systems.

As you read on, it’s worth noting that as you reduce the number of cliff edges and lower the stakes lower statistical reliability becomes more acceptable.

One place to start the GCSE rethink is with respect to the number of different grades awarded.  Given the signposting requirements need at the staging post of sixteen, it is feasible to significantly reduce them and move towards a foundation, mastery and excellence level type system. 

Do we require more/fewer than three levels of attainment to successfully signpost pupils at 16?  Why and what for? 

Alongside this there is a need to reduce the content heavy GCSE syllabi.  This would allow teachers to focus on teaching core factual, conceptual and procedural skills in a carefully constructed, vertically integrated subject curriculum and for pupils to focus on fully learning it.  Each subject curriculum would need to clearly identify the knowledge required at each of the three levels.  The key is that the knowledge is well sequenced within and across the levels.  This will ensure pupils are not trapped within a level. 

At a foundation level, assessment and the awarding of the certificate could be largely or exclusively teacher assessment with light touch moderation via an internal chartered assessor or a short synoptic online assessment.  This would be a stage rather than an age awarded qualification.  There would be no requirement for pupils to attain it to be awarded the mastery or excellence level qualifications.  The knowledge within the foundation level would be an assumed pre-requisite for the learning at a higher level. For example in Mathematics, a large part of the foundation curriculum may be focused on number and practical applications. 

A mastery level would require a focused curriculum and a clear national standardisation process.  The latter was the major flaw in this year’s examination process.  Given the differences between subjects I hesitate to suggest exactly what this should be.  It could include a number of externally set and marked controlled assessment pieces throughout a course or examinations taken at the point of readiness – with potentially a January and June assessment window – or visiting moderators to determine whether the standard has been met or not.  There is a bottom line, a standard to be met, not a ceiling on the numbers who would achieve or aspire to this level.

At the excellence level, the examination system may most closely resemble the current system with significant rigour (subject based habits of mind assessed) and synoptic terminal written assessments.  There is a need to engage subject communities in helping determine, but not dictating, other important aspects of the course that should be assessed and how this might best be achieved, if not in a written format.  Not forgetting one of the key lessons from the past with respect to the manageability of the whole assessment process.  

The system must not limit pupils to a single pre or teacher-determined level and must not have the current artificially capped limit on achievement.  It will be interesting to observe how the GCSE class of 2020 succeed in the years ahead.  By accidentally increasing access to Level 3 post-16 programmes have we set pupils up to fail or given them the opportunity to flourish which was denied too many in previous years?  Time will tell.

Any change would have significant implications for the Accountability System.  I’ve long believed it needs to be tipped on its head.  The primary focus must be on school improvement with accountability playing a part, where it can make greatest contribution, rather than our current accountability blunderbuss approach.  In education circles, the desirability to move to a post A-level results admission process has long been proposed and mooted.  Maybe, now is the time to look at implementing this approach. 

It already looks like a year of significant disruption will be faced by schools and pupils which is soon likely to resemble the hokey cokey.  The above is more of a starter for ten rather than a holistic and ‘oven-ready’ implementable system.  What do you think?  What would you propose?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the unthinkable is actually achievable. Where there is a will there is a way.



4 thoughts on “Rethinking GCSE Examinations

  1. Another thoughtful piece which makes the case for a simplified system that is at once fair and rigorous. A huge dose of common sense is also evident.

    Posted by GTM | September 27, 2020, 9:53 am
  2. Well said Stephen

    Posted by Kevin Massey | September 27, 2020, 10:26 am


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