Whilst statutory assessment in primary education is relatively recent in comparison (compulsory testing at 7 and 11 only arrived in the 1990s, with further assessments introduced in the last 10 years), it has come to dominate a great deal of time, effort and practice in primary schools as well.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the education sector as it has every other area of life, with both primary and secondary having to adapt to a moving feast of changes in statutory assessment. The question then arises: Should we go back to where we were, or should we embrace the change and move forward in a different direction?
This blog looks at GCSEs and the follow up will look at primary assessments.
Where next for statutory assessment at 16?
England is quite unusual in having statutory testing at 16. Most countries have end-of-statutory-education tests at 17 or 18; England is one of just six OECD countries with a full suite of examinations at 16. In England, it became compulsory to remain in some form of education until the age of 18 follow legislation introduced in 2008; 18 is now the ‘education leaving age’ and since 2015, those over 16 have to be in some form of education until just after their 18th birthday.
As GCSEs have become increasingly anachronistic, many have stepped in to suggest that we consider reform. Pre-pandemic, both The Times (in 2019) and the Guardian (2018) had backed calls to move beyond examinations at 16, and there is regular pressure from industry bodies such as the CBI, whose 2019 report is simply the latest in a long series of calls for reform from those representing employers.
Rethinking Assessment, an influential group launched in September 2020 which includes figures as diverse as Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary, Kenneth Baker, former Secretary of State for Schools, and Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College for Teaching , is blunt in its appraisals of GSCEs: ‘Our exam system is a mess. Now is the time to reshape it.’ As Kenneth Baker wrote at the time of the group’s launch, ‘There is no need any more for a school leaving age exam at 16. GCSEs do not correspond to the needs of either students or employers in the digital age.’
The grading chaos of 2020 – which even Ofqual called 'challenging for everyone' and 'less than optimal', which is a polite way of putting it – and its fallout is likely to accelerate the calls for reform. In particular, the ongoing panic about ‘grade inflation’ – the worry that examinations are ‘getting easier’ and that more students are getting higher grades – has been made much more complicated by the awarding of non-examination assessed grades in 2020: As Laura McInerney puts it, “When the education secretary opted in August to let pupils in England keep grades submitted by their teachers, he doubled the number of pupils holding top grades and increased the numbers getting a C by about 10% on previous years.”
As reform becomes more appealing, various groups are beginning to sketch out what a post-GCSE school system might look like. ‘Re-assessing the future; how to move beyond GCSEs’, a January 2021 report by Tom Richmond of think tank EDSK which finds that GCSEs are expensive, limiting and assessed by ‘disproportionate and unnecessary’ written examinations, suggests that we should move to a system of Upper and Lower Secondary, with phases from ages 11-15 and 15-18. The report is well worth reading in full, with a great deal of insightful observation about the issues facing secondary education.
There are those who have argued for retaining GSCEs, such as Nick Gibb who argued as recently as 2019 that, “GCSE has become a valuable, important qualification that should be treated as a national treasure.” Governments have been particularly keen on using results of examinations at 16 within a number-based accountability system, and it is no surprise to see Gibb’s desire to maintain the status quo. Even for politicians like Gibb, who has opted to reform examinations at 16 rather than consider any alternative, the 2020 shock to the GCSE system will be causing some headaches.
The question as to whether we should go back to where we were might end up being redundant if the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic continues to be felt beyond 2021; there may not be a there to go back to. With calls for high-impact reforms to secondary schooling such as repeating school years or extending the school day becoming increasingly common, it will be fascinating to see how the debate progresses.
What do you think will happen to GCSEs in the next five years?
(You might also like Where next for Statutory Assessment? The KS2 question.)