GCSEs are not the only answer

GCSEs are not the only answer

In an article for the September edition of Politics First, Simon Lebus highlights the need for more examiners and that GCSEs are not the only answer to the UKs educational needs.

Q What are the biggest challenges faced by exam boards?

Public exams are high stakes for everybody involved with them – candidates, teachers, schools and exam boards. With so much riding on them there is zero tolerance of error - and that makes good quality marking key.

With so much riding on them there is zero tolerance of error"

Several things are needed to deliver this. There is the skill associated with setting good questions that allow candidates across a wide range of abilities effectively to demonstrate what they know and what they have learned. There is also a skill to writing mark schemes that are clear and easy for examiners to apply. None of this works, however, without the large group of committed examiners who spend two very intense months during June and July each year marking approximately five million exam scripts.

The question of how to make sure that there are enough examiners able to mark each summer is rising up the agenda, especially given the fact that we will have new and old qualifications running in tandem for a while which means that around 20% more markers are going to be needed.

Ultimately support will be needed from schools, school leaders and teachers’ unions if this is to be achieved. The great benefit would not just be improved system resilience and quicker turnaround times but also, potentially, an improvement in the quality of marking.

Q What will be the big policy debates over the next five years?

With the Government’s economic priority being the UK’s levels of productivity it will inevitably have to consider the levels of numeracy and literacy amongst the population.

Levels of adult literacy and numeracy are alarmingly low in the UK."

At the moment people have tunnel vision depending on their starting point. Some, for example, like the CBI are calling for an end to GCSEs. Conversely the government is defining achievement in English and Maths purely in terms of the GCSE.

Both in my view are wrong. In terms of levels of adult literacy and numeracy, which are alarmingly low in the UK, we need to focus on the level of attainment and not get distracted by the vehicle for delivery. For some learners the GCSE is not the most appropriate qualification or curriculum for delivering Level 2 literacy and numeracy. Those who have already failed to obtain this in school are unlikely to do any better later on. For them, vocational programmes delivering the same level via contextual learning may be much more suitable.

...this is the wrong debate to be having and is a red herring for other issues."

With regard to whether GCSE should be scrapped, this is the wrong debate to be having and is a red herring for other issues that need addressing. Many other countries have an assessment at 16 in one form or another as this is a key breakpoint in the transition from lower to upper secondary education. This serves the function of providing some external verification of a young person’s success in acquiring a general education before they embark on the path of specialisation. GCSEs provide a form of currency that facilitates this and helps lubricate the labour mobility that is such a feature of globalisation.

Q What are Cambridge Assessment’s priorities over the coming year?

In some ways my answer relates to the previous question. We are an international exams group. We operate in 170 countries and our business is growing year on Two thirds of our business is done abroad."

year. Two thirds of our business is done abroad and the demand for English language qualifications, Cambridge International GCSEs and Cambridge International A Levels are growing year on year. This is to do with the growth in the size of the global middle class which is increasingly demanding internationally transferable qualifications for their children and globalisation – where English is the medium of business. We are therefore very focused on continuing to support that large international constituency whilst ensuring that our new UK A Levels and GCSEs are best in class.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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