Scrapping GCSEs is a reckless diversion

The current outcry from some in education to scrap GCSEs is a reckless diversion from the one thing parents, students and teachers most need now, which is certainty.

Certainty that the exams will go ahead, certainty that their exams will be fairly assessed and certainty on what will be examined. This is what will give confidence to 15 and 16 year olds who need to know that their hard work and that of their parents and teachers will be rewarded fairly come next summer. But more does need to be done. This week’s announcement from Gavin Williamson was not enough.

Schools cannot wait till Christmas for this. They need urgent clarity on the contingency plans being put in place for students who are isolating during exams and details on how examination papers will be designed in a way that recognises some students, through no fault of their own, will have missed more of their learning than others. There also needs to be proper leadership shown on mock exams to support teacher workload and to avoid further unnecessary confusion and time away from classroom learning.

The debate around scrapping GCSEs is not a new one. One of the main arguments of the abolitionists is that the assessment system fails the ‘forgotten third’ of students – that is the 35% of young people who leave school without a pass in English and maths. But the reality is, changing the assessment system won’t do anything to ensure these students have the knowledge and skills they need to progress. What will have an impact is a relentless focus on improving classroom teaching. To do this teachers need the space and time to continue to develop professionally without the distraction of another wholesale transformation in the system.

My fear more generally around the scrapping of GCSEs is that it also fails to recognise the school system that we have. Most students swap institutions at 16 and most students don’t go on to do A-Levels. Without GCSEs it is likely that less, not more, students would go on to do A-Levels. We would likely see the turbocharging of the same curriculum narrowing we do leading up to KS4. This would disadvantage boys the most, as for them GCSEs are often the first motivator they encounter at school to properly push themselves. But it is also true – like it or not – that school accountability measures are a driver of school improvement, and without GCSEs, those schools without sixth forms could be left with no published exam results and those schools with a sixth form would be left with perverse incentives that, when push came to shove, might choose to focus on students they knew would stay with them for A-Levels, just as the old accountability system favoured a focus on getting as many students as possible over the C/D borderline.

Reforming education is not easy and we should never shy away from major reform, but scrapping GCSEs should be fairly low down the list if improving outcomes is our goal. Let’s start by giving current students and teachers certainty over the next 12 months, then let’s look at how we can really see education improve life chances for every child.