This year’s GCSE results have been met with (deserved) criticism over the new grading system, the changes to assessment and the emphasis that continues to be placed on ‘high status’ Ebacc subjects at the expense of others. All of these have resulted in further pressure and anxiety for the ‘exam generation’ – yet discussion about whether extensive assessment at age 16 is still necessary and if it isn’t, then what should take place instead, has been largely absent.
In the late 1980s, GCSEs established themselves as the main leaving exam, ending the division between academic GCE O-levels and non-academic CSEs. GCSEs, unlike the O-levels had much greater input from teachers (reflecting the more general influence that educational professionals still had over policy) and a much fairer method of assessment – many practitioners were pleased they drew on the pedagogy of CSE rather than the GCE. Now, forty years later, following Michael Gove’s reforms they resemble the O-level.
Critiquing the current format and trying to ’reclaim’ GCSE is essential, but it’s also important to question whether in times when the school leaving age is now effectively 18, it’s necessary for young people to jump through a set of hoops at 16. It’s true that many that students do ‘leave’ their existing schools at the end of KS4, partly reflecting the antiquated system of provision in this country, but also the increasingly selective nature of post-16 education where more and more students are not able to enter their own school sixth forms -but few 16-year olds enter the labour market or start apprenticeships.
Like the SATs, GCSEs are primarily used to rank schools and as a result, large numbers of people in the education sector have a career or business interest in maintaining the status quo. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be assessment at 16 – it’s just that that we don’t need this type.