Blog: Don't ditch GCSEs - Simon Lebus

Blog: Don't ditch GCSEs - Simon Lebus

The CBI's (Confederation of British Industry) outgoing Director General, John Cridland, recently gave a speech at the Wellington College Festival of Education calling for curriculum reform and suggesting that the time had come to abolish GCSEs. While I would not quarrel with his assertion that the UK has a ‘test-obsessed culture’, it is wrong to conclude on the basis of this that GCSEs should be scrapped.

First, it is important to recognise that most other nations carry out some form of assessment at 16 and that this is for the good It is also incorrect to suggest that having such major exams at 16 makes us “oddballs”

reason that it represents a critical juncture in people’s lives and education, as it is generally at this stage that young people begin to specialise. Although this assessment is very often carried out through teacher assessment rather than external examination, most of the available evidence suggests that teacher assessment is inconsistent in its standard, particularly when such assessment is used for accountability or school performance monitoring purposes, and hence that external examination is a better way of accurately recording student achievement. It is also incorrect to suggest that having such major exams at 16 makes us “oddballs” and that it is especially unusual for other nations to use external qualifications at that age; many young people in Singapore, for example, still take O Levels, and Cambridge International Examinations’ IGCSEs are taken in 170 different countries around the world by a rapidly growing number of 16 year olds.

Second, exams taken at the end of lower secondary education provide a mechanism for certifying that young people have a sound general education before they start to specialise, and, importantly, provide one of the most effective mechanisms for providing clear signals about how the lower secondary curriculum should be organised and what young people schooled in it are expected to learn. Without this, the task of securing minimum standards in maths and English especially becomes more difficult, and it is hard to see how the CBI’s proposals to abolish exams at 16 would remedy this.

...the answer is not to delay the point at which specialisation starts"

Third, we live in a credentialist age in which many of the young people now being educated can expect to have careers and lead lives that span national boundaries. GCSEs (and other well-recognised externally awarded qualifications) provide a form of currency that facilitates this and helps lubricate the labour mobility that is such a feature of globalisation. GCSEs, therefore, are not an historical anomaly, and continue to play an important role in supporting the transition from general to specialist secondary education.

If Mr Cridland and others are concerned about a lack of breadth in secondary education the answer is not to delay the point at which specialisation starts by two years but rather to improve the 11-16 curriculum. Simply deferring specialisation until 18 would instead have the likely knock-on effect of contributing to further pressure for four year HE degrees, and there is no evidence at the moment that there is either appetite or capacity for such a major reform, let alone that it is affordable.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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