Let’s not pretend GCSEs are perfect

By: Michael Lemin

Policy and Research Manager

Monday 17 July 2017


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It seems that, against all odds, in a department where everything else has changed around him, Schools Minister Nick Gibb is the Department for Education’s longest serving politician. His 3 years in post seems a lifetime, given that he’s worked under 3 different Education Secretaries in that time.

Much of schools reform over the last few years can be attributed to Gibb. Changes to English and maths, the introduction of baseline testing and increased emphasis on GCSEs, have all been championed under his watch. GCSEs have been framed as the “gold standard” in qualifications.

In August last year, the day after GCSE exam results were published, Gibb said “Next year we will introduce new world-class GCSEs that will stretch the brightest pupils.”

Whilst we await results this year, there is much discussion surrounding GCSEs. There were errors with the new English exams, including an accidental rewrite of Shakespeare and a wrong chapter reference. Eyebrows were also raised when Biology pupils were asked to “explain why Darwin was drawn as a monkey,”

With such importance placed on examinations, these well publicised errors indicate that there is still some way to go before GCSEs can be considered “world class.”

Results this year will also include a new grading system for English and maths. Teachers have expressed concern over the anxiety caused by confusion over the new model. The effects of this change will be felt for many years, particularly for young people who emerge this year with a mixture of letters and numbers for their results.

It could also provide some barriers to entering employment. In the recently published CBI/Pearson employer skills survey, 35% of businesses said that they were wholly unaware of the grading changes to GCSEs

What this all shows, is that GCSEs are not perfect. Sometimes, they are not the right option for young people. The notion that GCSEs are somehow superior to Technical Awards is flawed; they are simply different approaches to learning and assessment.

Nick Gibb will have some time to reflect over the summer, I hope he acknowledges that GCSEs in themselves are not the answer to the challenges before him.  It’s time we put pupils at the heart of the system and provide a balanced curriculum that works for them. For many pupils, that will include Technical Awards, such as our suite of V-Certs. Many others will thrive on a GCSE-only diet; but let’s not pretend that they’re perfect or right for every pupil.

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