What have GCSEs ever done for us?

by Tim Oates, 28 October 2021
High school students walking to their next class

The introduction of GCSEs

When Keith Joseph announced the introduction of GCSEs in 1984 – to be first taught in 1986, with first exams two years later – they were warmly welcomed by teacher unions. The NUT’s Fred Jarvis said '...this is one decision of Sir Keith’s which will be applauded throughout the teaching profession...'.

The new qualification was widely supported by academics and researchers not least because it ended the two track system of CSE and O level, with much talk of the end of outmoded ideas of ‘sheep and goats’. Keith Joseph’s commitment to clear standards and support for ‘criterion-referencing’ – raised eyebrows amongst assessment professionals charged with putting the grading processes in place, but the commitment to meritocratic and transparent assessment was welcomed. The rationale was clear and matched the values of a society committed to improving opportunity and raising educational standards.

It was an impressive and pretty seismic step forward for arrangements in England. Huge effort was invested to bring GCSEs in alongside the development of the first National Curriculum – I remember, in particular, the fraught meetings trying to link the new grades and National Curriculum Levels. The tireless fixer Sir Ron Dearing banged heads together and brokered a working solution, which lasted. We should not underestimate the national achievement which all of this represented, and which has endured.

Some twenty years after their conception, Mike Tomlinson’s 2004 comprehensive report provided a glimpse of other possibilities, but the proposed full system reform – including A level and vocational qualifications – failed to gain confidence of the incumbent Government.

GCSEs today

GCSEs thus have been a feature of arrangements for over 30 years. But a GCSE today is very different from a GCSE in 1988 – they are not a relic of a bygone age, nor have the suffered adverse mutation over the years – instead, they are great example of progressive evolution. They have been both refined and enhanced through evaluation and regulation, and have adapted to changing educational practices and policy imperatives. We’ve shifted the balance of assessment, the length of exams, the form of questions, and can do so again if there is evidence to suggest it would be appropriate. We certainly need to recognise that they are admired and emulated by many nations, and we have written elsewhere about the inaccuracy of claims that 'only we have things like GCSEs at 16'. Simply not so.

Many other things have been said of GCSEs: ‘They are redundant in a system where people stay on in education..’; ‘there are alternatives’; ‘….they don’t have a function anymore…’. I think we need to be clear exactly just what a complex and important set of functions they actually carry. And in considering refinements and reformed alternatives, whether we want those functions to continue, and if so, by what means.

What GCSEs have done and continue to do

So, just what have GCSEs done for us? Well...

  • Provided a unified set of arrangements for assessing ‘general academic’ subjects that was not present in the nation prior to their introduction
  • Improved our capacity to understand patterns of inequality in the education system and act on them.
  • Provided an enduring set of qualifications that have credibility, status and relevance and which are understood by parents, educators and industry – a function not to be underestimated.

And they continue to support the following key functions:

  • Clear specification of programme content
  • Statement of standards
  • Indication of depth of treatment of content
  • Structure for formative assessment
  • Information for managing progression and informing selection decisions
  • Motivating targets for learners
  • Quality assurance of education for the State, for parents and others.

So, quite a lot of very important things.

This blog is not designed to argue a fully comprehensive case for retaining GCSEs or respond to all the criticisms – it focuses on not forgetting what they have done for us….and crucially, if we remove GCSEs, what we would do instead in order to ensure that all the vital functions which they support can be guaranteed by alternative arrangements? I think that might be the key exam question.

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