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GCSEs are Dead! Why are Exams Necessary for 16 Year Olds?


Why the GCSE way of hunting educational outcomes just isn’t good enough.

It’s no secret that GCSE’s have come under fire recently. Did I say recently? I meant always. There have been various reasons and accusations across the years: results massaging; politically- driven “softening” or “hardening” of exams, the peculiar desire to skew results upwards away from normal distribution in ways that even the Flynn effect would struggle to justify, the sinister practice of submarine “streaming” of students towards or away from A-levels.

You know, all that objective stuff that means that qualifications actually reflect ability.

But whatever you take on GCSE’s, it’s difficult to ignore the comments from the very man who was the architect of their creation: Lord Baker. In the period 1986-89, this chap, as education secretary oversaw the integration of the GCE “O” Levels and CSE’s into one qualification.

Quite the achievement at the time, and one that came during a period in which the National Curriculum was introduced, along with those lovely league tables, because education is just like any other business, right? Oh, wait. That’s another article. (Financial Funding Challenges in Educatio)

Lord Baker say’s GCSEs should be scrapped.

In Lord Baker’s own words, his own creation “are redundant and I think therefore GCSE’s should be quietly put to sleep”. Huzzah! Finally, someone (and not just someone; the Lord of GCSE’s) has recognised that increasing the participation age to 18 means that exams at 16 make no f***ing sense whatsoever! (BBC)

That the fact that increasing the participation age to 18 was implemented in 2008 and went into effect in 2015 seems to have escaped the attention of pretty much everyone until now is neither here nor there. Someone finally noticed, and said something about it!

What the actual f*** is going on? How is it that a nation of people who are better educated every year (according, ironically, to GCSE results) have missed the basic point that testing students two years before it actually matters is a stupid idea?  How did we walk past the notion that outmoded systems of examination are exactly that?

Because education isn’t about children; it’s about politics.

If you’ve read any of my previous articles on this website (There’s a list of them at the bottom of this post), you’ll know that I’m not exactly a fan of the current system of education in either the UK or the US, so what I’m going to say next won’t exactly floor you.

I believe that the reason we’ve taken so long in the UK to realise that GCSE’s are a waste of everyone’s time is because we don’t really care what happens with young people so long as we’ve all got some lovely pieces of paper to suggest that there’s some sort of system in place: It brings a sense of security.

How many GCSE’s did your kid get, parents, ask each other at dinner parties. Did they get the requisite grades in English and Maths to prove they’re a valid human, or will they have to retake? Are they predicted to win a Nobel Prize with their 9 A* grades? Do we have good genes? Do we? Do we?

The current system of examination in the UK at 16 years of age is a joke. There, I said it. I feel better. That it took us 11 years to even start noticing is an even bigger joke.

When children were allowed to leave education at 16 it made some sort of sense to have qualifications: No GCSE’s? That’s a fair indication that something went wrong for you somewhere. As an individual in society you don’t appear on paper to know very much. Lots of GCSE’s? That’s a fair indication that something went right (or at least less wrong). On paper, you appear to know stuff about things. Employers quite liked the distinction, and it made something of a difference at interview screening.

But back in 2008, the UK government changed the participation age and kept the old system of examination. Why? Because it was a cheap solution to a political problem, that’s why.

Back then, there was an enormous political problem surrounding the number of kids who were leaving school at 16 and becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

In other words, there was an embarrassing number of kids who were leaving school and becoming economically inactive. They were leaving school without the necessary results to secure employment and, as a result, were contributing to the unemployment figures.

Education and Skills Act 2008

The answer: Increase the participation age, lose the NEET statistics somewhere in the education system instead of the unemployment statistics and bank against being able to do something about it in a few years’ time. And did successive governments adapt the system of assessment to reflect this? Did they heck as like! (The Education and Skills act 2008)

What happened instead is that kids were required to either stay on in their schools to study A-levels, go to colleges to study either the same, something similar, or Vocational courses (which, for “Goveian” reasons also required them to achieve minimum grades in GCSE English and Maths), or become an “Apprentice” and learn some work skills on the job.

What they weren’t allowed to do was to go out into the world and become unemployment statistics. And it kinda worked. Now, kids have to wait another 2 years to become more skilled unemployment statistics. Actually, that’s unfair; they don’t have to do that. They can take zero-hour contract jobs for minimum wage; or an internship. And if they really want to get on in life, they can go to University and leave with £40,000 of debt. And then take a zero-hour contract job for minimum wage; or an internship.

What did we do about the GCSEs?

And what happened to the GCSE’s during all this time? These 11 years? Nothing. Nil, Nada, Zip. GCSE’s became a system of dictating which of these streams kids were channelled into. Those that had the minimum requirement to enter the A-level stream get to do that and go to University and those that didn’t get to do something skill-based and practical. Either way, they’re productive members of society, right?

So, what system does the UK currently have of assessing the general education of kids it decided would be in the education or training for 2 additional years at the end of those 2 years? Well, funnily enough, it has exactly the same as the change in the GCSE system during the last 11 years.

The different streams created by the system reacting to the increase in participation age have led to innumerable outcomes for learners, none of which are comparable to each other. In other words, the UK raised its participation age in 2008, allowed 7 years for it to come into force, and now has absolutely no objective way of measuring its success. Huzzah! Another British success story! And not only do we not have a cohort-based measurement of attainment at 18, the only one we do have is automatically 2 years out-of date.

And that’s kinda my point. These changes (or lack of them) have nothing whatsoever to do with children and everything to do with politics.

Here in the UK, politicians have any number of stat-gasms over attainment at GCSE despite the fact that they predict absolutely nothing except deciding where kids will go for the following 2 years, and lack of attainment predicts the same.

Kids are streamed into their immediate future based on a system that was supposed to allow them some sort of evidence of achievement in a world where they were free at 16 to explore the world. Now they’re not free to do that, the system captures their academic ability, tells them where they’re going for the next 2 years and then walks away without a care for where how they’ve got on.

It’s bullshit, Ladies and Gentlemen, and the fact that it took the guy who invented the damn things to point that out is a f***ing disgrace. This is a classic example of political expedience over educational quality and that society hasn’t noticed until now is quite frankly embarrassing.

How Should We Change UK School Exams?

Well, an assessment at 18, which was the age of participation Government decided on and hasn’t withdrawn that actually reflects the life skills kids possess after the additional 2 years it was decided was necessary to either hide their ability to be economically inactive or to record their ability to be economically productive would be nice, right? Back in the day, GCSE’s were that stat, right? Where’s the new one? Where is the cohort-wide measurement that reflects the state of our young people that are required to participate for an additional 2 years?

Or was all this a stealth means of streaming young people into work or higher education using an existing system of assessment to do so?

Where do we go from here?

Well, I for one want to see the scrappage of GCSE’s. It’s in the political arena already, and from the horses’ mouth, so let’s walk away.

Do you currently have GCSE students? Are they freaking out about their attainment? Ask yourself this very simple question: Where are they going to be in 2 years after their exams? After all, if we’re in the system, we’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, right?

The appropriate answer is that your kids are where they are right now. They have you, and you have them. For the sake of all that you hold sacred, tell them that who they are now is not who they will be.

The next two years after their exams will open their eyes to all sorts of possibilities, and that’s awesome. Tell them that GCSE’s do not define them. But please don’t tell them how little it matters what they do next; or how little GCSE’s matter; they’re not ready for that.

Until the politicians catch up with us, teachers are the front-line in perpetuating a myth that what is going on is important, because those who are supposed to care stopped caring a long time ago.

In private, though, it might avail you to start questioning why the system that was actively changed in 2008 has been passively allowed to become redundant 11 years later. Just saying.

Other Articles from Matt Davis.

School Funding Challenges.

Effective Feedback is not Written Feedback.

How the Education System Causes Chronic Stress

Mental Health Crisis in School Children.

Paul Stevens-Fulbrookhttps://teacherofsci.com
Paul Stevens-Fulbrook (TeacherOfSci) is a Science teacher, writer and education blogger based in Brighton, England. He started teacherofsci.com to help support teachers everywhere with the everyday struggles that they are all faced with, both in the classroom and at home.