In his article in the guardian on Friday http://gu.com/p/4xxbm, Peter Wilby made a good case for the abolition of the GCSE as a qualification in England and it has to be said he makes a compelling case. Before I go further, let me say that I largely agree with everything he writes. The GCSE is no longer fit for purpose, mainly because it no longer has an obvious purpose!
As Wilby discusses, once upon-a-time, when pupils left school at age 16 and only 10% or so of those leavers went on to study A levels, there was a clear need for a qualification that assessed the general skills and academic achievements of the school leaving population. Employers had to be able to discern between applicants for jobs and apprenticeships. I believe that GCSEs did this well, especially within the grade boundaries A (or later A*) to C.
However, as the number of pupils who remain in education rose and rose over the years to a point in time now, where post 16 education is compulsory, the need for a stand-alone, high-risk qualification at 16 seems entirely unnecessary. Surely if we were designing the education system from scratch to include compulsory education to 18 we wouldn’t stick in a huge exam session just two years prior to this. What would be the purpose? Yes students should have their progress assessed at this point, but not in this way and why would 16 be more important than 15 or 17 on the road to whatever final qualification the individual gains at 18. Furthermore, increasingly I find through my own teaching that the GCSE has ceased to be a particularly good preparation for A level. Those who have done GCSE sciences don’t seem to have a good grasp of some fundamental material that would allow them to access the A level material in my subject (biology).
I happen to believe that the university system in England and the A levels that allow entry to it should be retained and have many strong features. It would be on the back of these two institutions that I would build our education system. Wilby wrote about removing the “full stop” of the GCSE and replacing it with a “semi-colon.” I couldn’t agree more. Why not a series of semi-colons throughout ones educational experience until one is ready to leave the system.
It would be easy to imagine a system in which the educational experience from the age of 11 (or 10, or 12 or 14 or whatever age we decide it is more appropriate) that, year on year, gives our young people a deeper and narrower educational experience leading up to university entrance and incorporating the A level. Students should be assessed regularly and should have to achieve a minimum standard in order to progress to the next level, but we would no longer have the “this is the most important thing you will ever do” exams at age 16. There should also be a range of attractive, useful options for students to leave this system in order to pursue other equally valid, perhaps broader, perhaps more vocational routes. In fact I wish there were more of these at present in order that more pupils had more opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Another brave move would be to remove the age-based cohort system altogether and to have pupils progress through the educational system at a rate that best suits them and so that they reach the next level when they are ready, not just because they reach a certain age. For a refreshing take on this and other matters, take a look at Ken Robinson’s RSA animate lecture http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Why shouldn’t a student be elevated through the system if they are good enough? This happens in the work place and in almost all other areas of life. The best candidates in the work-place are promoted over the less good ones and their age or number of years at the company is usually not a factor.
Under the last Labour government there was a move towards a 14-19 agenda, but the GCSE was retained – it will be a brave government that remove it. 14-19 makes sense. There are some LEAs in England that operate a “middle/upper school” system so that children move schools at year 9 (age 13/14), in fact I briefly taught in an excellent one – King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, the thing that may save the GCSE in the end could be simply a matter of practicalities and infrastructure. The ever-complex system of schooling in England (comprehensives, grammars, free schools, academies, independent schools, FE colleges, middle schools, upper schools, public schools etc etc) means that it suits the running of our educational establishments to retain the status quo. If we remove the GCSE, and education is compulsory until 18, why have a school that says goodbye to its pupils at 16? But those schools exist and in great numbers. They don’t have space to expand and we certainly can’t close them down. Should their pupils not have anything to show for their five years at their high school? GCSEs still make sense to a degree in this context.
So, as a product of the GCSE system (2A*, 6A, 1B in 1995 if you were wondering – fairly humble by today’s standards), I would have to conclude that they are probably here to stay unless a government of the future is prepared to spend a lot of time and money coming up with something better and then implementing it in the face of waves of objection, vested interest and unhappiness. That would be a brave government indeed.