The Future of GCSEs


What initial conclusions about the future of GCSE exams can we draw from the mountain of documents which Michael Gove and the Department for Education released last week? And who will the winners and losers be if these proposals come to pass in their current form?

There can be no doubt that such a new qualification, whether it is called GCSE, IGCSE, ‘Certificate’ or whatever, represents a stronger preparation for A-level academic study and so would benefit the more able and ambitious candidates. But what about the less able candidates? Will there be sufficient variation between the degrees of difficulty of different exam papers to ensure that there is something to match the attainment levels of all candidates?

The answer to that question is not yet clear but the trends are long established. Once upon a time we had Foundation, Intermediate and Higher level GCSE exam papers to distinguish between candidates at different levels and ensure that every candidate tackled a paper that “made sense” to them. The Intermediate level has long since gone and most subjects have one tier only, with only certain core subjects like Maths and the Sciences being examined at two levels.

Now it seems that even this residual distinction is under threat. Just because a harder topic appears in bold print does not constitute a promise that it will appear on a separate exam paper. Tiering may be a thing of the past in all subjects. This may save a few pence from the cost of exam-setting, but where is the educational justification for this homogenisation? Almost no one is lobbying for such a change and it is hard to see who will benefit in the long run from forcing every 16-year-old to sit exams which may be far beyond their current abilities.

And what about the future of coursework and controlled assessment? One of the reasons why IGCSEs have become popular in the UK is because they do not insist upon coursework (or controlled assessment) – candidates may be assessed by means of final, timed exam papers only.  Most of the core GCSEs, on the other hand, currently make controlled assessment inescapable. While this has made it considerably harder for parents’ handiwork to be submitted to the examiners, it has had a number of negative consequences. The requirement for whole swathes of classwork to be directly supervised and “controlled” has discriminated against whole categories of non-standard candidates who, for whatever reason, do not study in a conventional classroom. For instance, adults studying in their own time, such as the ones taught at a distance by Oxford Open Learning, have been effectively barred from most GCSEs by these strictures.

Any proposals which allow for valid alternatives to the controlled-assessment-for-everyone model are to be welcomed, but the Dept for Education has fudged this particular issue. It appears likely that it will still be impossible to take an English GCSE, for example, without some element of controlled assessment, albeit on a reduced scale. This is a compromise which will not suit the minority and disadvantaged groups for whom controlled assessment is difficult or impossible.

In this respect, the government really should have followed the model established by the Edexcel and Cambridge IGCSE specifications which make coursework optional and which strive to level the playing field for candidates who submit coursework and those who prefer to be judged on their abilities in a formal examination alone. If the former suits girls and the latter suits boys, as so much evidence suggests, then so be it – let them choose!

The plan is to start teaching the new specifications in September 2015 for exams in 2017. This is an impractical schedule when so many fundamental questions still remain unanswered. If the government is determined to turn GCSEs into IGCSEs by another name, there is a much simpler and cheaper plan available. Offer the same funding for IGCSEs (or Certificates as they must now be called) as for GCSEs within state schools and let the market choose. Right now, state schools are effectively barred from offering IGCSEs because of the lack of funding. That needs to change.

Schools would vote with their feet. The more ‘academic’ schools will shift to IGCSEs or risk being seen to be left behind. Some will ask their higher sets to take IGCSEs and their lower sets to take GCSEs, and so on. In order to justify funding, the existing IGCSE specifications can be scrutinised and modified as time goes by. Perhaps in time the old GCSE will no longer be required. It would be a process of evolution rather than revolution.

As it is, we are witnessing a sham revolution, a re-invention of the wheel or, worse, a re-invention of a wheel which is not quite as good as the (IGCSE) wheel we have already got.

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