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GCSEs: is the basket beyond repair, or just overloaded?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 May 2021

IOE Events.

The case for high-stakes exams at age 16, in the form of GCSEs, has felt precarious at times, especially so since the education and training participation age increased to age 18.  However, as we heard in both our latest public debate, on GCSEs, and our previous event on closing the attainment gap post-Covid, the GCSE system retains many supporters, even though some are surprised to find themselves taking that position.

For this  debate, were joined by IOE colleagues Mary Richardson (chair), Tina Isaacs and Gill Wyness; Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment; and campaigner on reliability in exam marking, Dennis Sherwood.  Read more about our panellists here.

We also heard how in some cases the calls to disband GCSEs hide ulterior motives, are not based on facts, or have not given serious consideration to the knock-on effects for further along our education system.

That is not to say there aren’t problems with GCSEs. These include being put to multiple and imbalanced purposes (too many eggs in one basket), and a level of unreliability in marking that some feel is unacceptable and unfair to the point of rendering the system fundamentally flawed (to continue the metaphor, the bottom has fallen out of the basket and the eggs are smashed on the floor).  But we live in an imperfect world, and some of the alternatives are even more problematic.

Removing assessment altogether at age 16 would lead to the loss of valuable system-level data; of signals for the learner as to their strengths and future options, and of a broad, shared curriculum for young people. The latter would arguably be particularly problematic for those going on to pursue vocational qualifications, which are typically narrower in terms of future career choice.

Meanwhile, research – as well as the experience of operating the GCSE system under Covid – has demonstrated how teacher assessment and coursework present their own challenges in terms of reliability and fairness. For teachers, such a system is also burdensome, especially so in the English case, where coverage of assessment in initial and continuing professional training is limited.  Traditionally, teachers’ job has been teaching, and the exam boards have covered assessment. Not to be overlooked, young people themselves have stated a preference for exams.

Where does that leave us?  There are many areas where we could compromise.  Accepting the unreliability of exam marking as the least-worst option and fine-tuning where we can (something that technology and AI could potentially help with).  And/or hedging our bets, bringing back a mix of exams, coursework, and teacher assessment. Maybe loosening, in the words of one panellist, the ‘gotcha’ nature of the GCSE system by allowing assessment by 18, instead of at 16.

The experience of the 2020 exam season and, we can anticipate, the 2021 season (even 2022), must surely pave the way for a more open-minded discussion about the purpose and form of assessment at age 16.  The debate continues.

Watch our debate back in full here.


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