Rethinking assessment in England

by Guest Blogger, 20 May 2021
a hairdresser cutting the back of someones hair

A group called Rethinking Assessment has called for GCSEs to be scrapped. But why, and do their arguments hold any merit? Barnaby Lenon examines the case for an overhaul of our exam system.

1. What are GCSEs for?

You cannot reform GCSEs without answering this question. 

One aim is to rank pupils for universities, colleges and employers. My hairdresser, for example, only recruits people with a grade 4 and above in English and maths. Experience has taught him that if you can’t pass these GCSEs you are unlikely to have some of the skills he needs. 

Another purpose is to determine which courses pupils should go onto next. It’s all very well if you are a highly selective private school, but most schools need to sift out those pupils capable of doing A Levels, those which should do BTECs or Cambridge Technicals and those which should go to a further education college to do a lower level vocational course. GCSE grades are a fair and reliable way of doing this.

Another purpose is to accredit the years of work the children have put into these subjects. The average child takes eight or nine GCSE subjects and will only continue with two of these into the sixth form. Do we not want to mark the end of their education in the majority of subjects with some form of certification?  

GCSE grades are a fair and reliable way of determining which courses pupils should go onto next.

Like it or not, one aim of GCSEs is to judge schools. Given that the taxpayer funds state schools and we believe in giving parents reliable information about their local schools, we need reliable data about school performance.  

Most teachers would agree that another aim of GCSEs is to motivate pupils to commit knowledge to the long-term memory. For example, every teacher of teenage boys knows that they pick up speed as GCSEs approach. They know that their grades will have an impact on their life chances.  

But why should pupils be forced to memorise stuff? Because having information in your long-term memory is very important.  You cannot think critically or analytically about a subject if you do not know something about it. And it is simply not true that we ‘forget what we learn at school’. I can still remember most of the poems, most of the science, much of the French I learnt at school.  

This is why exams at 15/16 are the norm across the world. Those people who so frequently claim that ‘we are the only country who has exams at 16’ are just wrong as recent research by Irenka Suto and Tim Oates at Cambridge Assessment has shown.(1) & (2)

Our system is simply this: GCSEs lead to A Levels and A Levels lead to three-year university degrees. The Cambridge team concludes that if we got rid of GCSEs, standards at A Level would fall and that would mean longer degrees, ultimately paid for by students.

2. Different types of school have different gripes

At schools like Eton and St Paul’s Girls, pupils generally get incredible GCSE results and stay on to take A Levels. So of course, they do not need GCSE results.  But in this respect, they are unusual: on average 60% of pupils move school/college after GCSEs. They must take with them some indication of their achievement in their first five years at secondary school.   

The union Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) represents hundreds of comprehensive schools. For them the problem is ‘the forgotten third’ who fail English and maths (and in many cases, other GCSEs). It seems cruel that after 12 years studying these subjects the bottom third have little to show for it.

In the past 20 years there has been growing concern about the ‘attainment gap’ between disadvantaged pupils and the rest. It is worth noting that reforms to exam systems tend to advantage the already advantaged because they have more resources to make the changes work. Schools working hard to drive up achievement in disadvantaged areas will have to be reassured that their progress will not be undermined by further changes.

3. Let’s just consider some of the other complaints made by the Rethinking Assessment group

a) Exams are stressful and pupils are suffering mental health problems as a result

It is true that recognition of mental health problems in teenagers has grown in recent years. This is partly because mental health has got worse and partly because we are rightly paying more attention to it.

It is not true, as Rethinking Assessment has claimed, that “30 or more GCSEs are taken in one month”. The average number of GCSEs taken is eight and no-one takes more than 12.

But there may be ways of destressing the system and we will come to that.

b) The current exams do not measure important things such as creativity. 

True – there are plenty of important personal qualities not measured by exams, such as the ability to be a team player or a creative thinker. The question is – can these things be measured  and if so, are we sure we want to? I would not myself want pupils formally assessed for their ability to play football or perform in a school play: the knowledge that they were being judged as part of a high-stakes system would reduce the enjoyment. But these things need not be ignored either. I would for example expect them to be highlighted in any reference that a school might write.

c) We are too exam-orientated.

True – but this must be partly the fault of society in general. It has not become harder to ‘get into university’; it has become easier. Anyone who talks about the importance of exam grades the whole time is fuelling the stress they are complaining about.

It is worth acknowledging the fact that the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, after 2010, greatly reduced the number and frequency of exams sat by our children by scrapping modules, module resits and January exams.

4. So what might be done?

The things I would not do

I would avoid replacing written exams with too much teacher assessed coursework. In England we cut back on this after 2012 and there were good reasons for that: the system was unfair; coursework was stressful and burdensome and sometimes formulaic and dull. Years of experience tell us that teacher-assessed coursework sounds better than it is.

Things we could do

Independent schools are free to choose what they do. Some, such as Bedales, Sevenoaks and St. Edward’s Oxford, have already moved away from GCSEs. The important thing is to persuade universities – will you accept our alternative qualification? – and parents. However, many schools which have embarked on the International Baccalaureate have found it hard to build demand.

Nevertheless, we could well move to a less rigid system than ‘GCSEs or nothing’, starting with those subjects that find the GCSE particularly limiting.

Many English teachers are unhappy with the GCSE, maths and science teachers less so. If different schools used different types of assessment for English at age 16, universities would almost certainly not object. A new type of English GCSE is needed for those who have to resit at age 17.

Some syllabuses need to evolve. Computational thinking should be added to maths A Level, for instance, while new subjects should come along. 

We should encourage schools to move away from an undue focus on exams. The recent Ofsted inspection reforms point in the right direction in this respect. The growth of the Extended Project since 2015 is another encouraging trend.

We should begin a national programme to ensure every pupil aged 11 and above has access to a computer, keyboard and internet access at home. If we had that, we would be able to contemplate exams done online and using a keyboard rather than a pen.

We should begin a national programme to ensure every pupil aged 11 and above has access to a computer, keyboard and internet access at home.

To deal with the problem of ‘the forgotten third’ we could require all pupils to take online tests of basic literacy and numeracy when they are ready to do so. A much higher proportion of the forgotten third would then get a qualification.

Some will argue in favour of vocational alternatives to GCSEs for those who are less academic. But the only way this can be made to work is if the course is so good that it leads onto other good vocational courses which in turn lead to good jobs. There is no point in pleading ‘parity of esteem’ for vocational courses. Evidence that they lead to a decent job is needed.

So long as English and history teachers want to use essays to examine students (as opposed, say, to multiple choice questions) there will be a degree of mark and grade unreliability. The solution might be to publish alongside the grade a measure of how secure the grade actually is and how close the student was to a higher or lower grade boundary.  Then the users of these qualifications would be able to use the grades more intelligently.

There is nothing new about plans to scrap GCSEs. But the formation of this latest group is a useful reminder that there is no system that can please everyone. Reforms take a decade to put in place, so now is not a bad time to start thinking afresh.

About the author:

Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is Professor and Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham. A former head of Harrow School, he is chairman of the Independent Schools Council and is on the Standards Advisory Committee for the England exam regulator Ofqual. The full version of his response to Rethinking Assessment can be found on the University of Buckingham website. 


1↩ Suto, I., and Oates, T. (2021). High-stakes testing after basic secondary education: How and why is it done in high-performing education systems? Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment.

2↩ Elliott, G., Rushton N., Darlington E. and Child S.  (2015). Are claims that the GCSE is a white elephant red herrings? Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment.

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