Calling for GCSEs to be scrapped is not new – that this time it comes from the Conservative Chair of the Commons education select committee is. Robert Halfon a Tory ‘moderniser’ who also supports a Norway style Brexit arrangement, is following in the footsteps of a long line of business leaders, think –tank directors and educationalists, arguing that as a result of the school and college leaving age now being effectively 18 years, the GCSE is irrelevant.
In the late 1980s, GCSEs established themselves as the main leaving exam, ending the division between academic GCE O-levels and non-academic CSEs. GCSE, unlike the O-level 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. But now, over thirty years later, following Michael Gove’s reforms they have now reverted to resembling the O-level.
Business leaders have been way ahead of the teaching profession in calling for the exam to be scrapped. Because GCSEs were, until fairly recently, considered to be progressive and innovatory has meant that teachers have remained attached to them. Scrapping them would also generate huge issues, particularly in 11-16 schools. As a result teachers have wanted to ‘reclaim’ the GCSE or to make it less ‘high stakes’.
In calling for GCSE to be abolished, Halfon is also seeking to reignite debate about the curriculum and assessment at 18. Here the issues are complex. While it’s almost universally agreed that the 16-18 curriculum should be more integrated, because of powerful opposition to any attempt to get rid of A-levels, most reformers have settled for a future scenario where the A-level would continue within some kind of ‘overarching’ framework, within which vocational and technical qualifications would have ‘equal’ status.
Building on previous proposals from Sir Ron Dearing in the 1990s, Tony Blair and New Labour tried this with the Curriculum 2000 reforms and then sidestepped the issue of abolishing A-levels with their rejection of the Tomlinson proposals four years later, instead proposing a specialist diploma pathway alongside the traditional academic. Like other attempts to raise the status of ‘non-academic’ learning the specialist diplomas were a disaster. Polls of teachers also show they are generally in favour of keeping the A-level. While the qualification still serves as a gold standard certificate for HE.
GCSE should be abolished, but in many respects, even if a consensus emerges for this, issues about what the post-16 curriculum should look like would not have not been resolved, only put back two years. In a rapidly changing labour market encouraging young people to follow specific technical and vocational pathways – even at 16, rather than 14, won’t do. We are no nearer to establishing a ‘good general education’ (rather than an ‘academic’ one) for everybody.