Are GCSEs and A-levels fit for purpose?

Recent criticism of the overhauled exam system is as misplaced as it is unfair, argues deputy head of Ipswich High School Nicola Griffiths

Over the last couple of weeks I have read criticisms regarding the ‘outdated’ GCSE and A-level examination system voiced by several prominent people, including the President of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan and Robert Halfon, chairman of the government’s Education Select Committee.

This is not the first time this has happened; in 2012, Michael Gove – education secretary at the time – said that GCSEs were not fit for purpose, after an outcry over GCSE English results following a last-minute C grade boundary change. John Cridland, then director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), also came forward, arguing that abandoning GCSEs would deliver a more well-rounded education.

That’s why I have a sense of déjà vu with the argument we are now hearing. The exam reforms brought in from September 2015 aimed to increase the rigour of both GCSEs and A-levels, with module exams replaced by terminal examinations, combined with an increase in content in every subject. The outcome? Continued dissatisfaction and support for GCSEs to be scrapped.

Lord Baker, who introduced GCSEs in the 1980s, supports the view of Halfon that GCSEs are outdated; Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL headteachers’ union, has expressed a similar opinion. Halfon instead called for vocational training, alongside traditional A-level subjects, to create a form of baccalaureate for 18-year-olds, along with the scrapping of ‘high stake’ GCSEs; the latter was also supported by Barton. The justification for such a proposal is to make students more fit for employment, and to remove the ‘great deal of pressure’ students are put under whilst taking their GCSEs.

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Over the last week, I have been thinking about the GCSE/A-level debate, and have now arrived at the following opinion.

The need for stability

Education is always rife with examination reform and, without some stability, we will continue to flit from one system to another with continuing dissatisfaction. It is easy to blame the examination system for our failings to produce young people with suitable employment skills, but I personally think this very narrow-minded. Additionally, whilst I appreciate the school leaving age is now 18, many students leave school and go onto different institutions at 16; without GCSEs or A-levels, universities would be faced with giving offers based on school predictions alone.

A valuable life skill

GCSEs are an excellent precursor to A-levels; it is far better to learn how to study and deal with the stress of exams before sitting the advanced courses. I think it is naive to think that 16-year-olds are able to do this on their own; this is where there is a joint responsibility for parents and teachers to help students through the process.

At Ipswich High School, as part of our study skills programme, we have lessons about how to revise in Year 9. We also have an annual student presentation from an award-winning revision company, Elevate, to all students in Years 9 to 11. Many Year 11 pupils also have teacher mentors alongside their tutors, who meet regularly to monitor and offer both academic and pastoral support.

High stakes

GCSEs have become more ‘high staked’ due to the increased pressure on pupils to achieve top grades – or levels, as they are now graded. Even though we are now approaching the third year of the new grading system, there is still a viewpoint – held by parents and pupils alike – that only a 9 will do; this, despite the fact that A-level 7 is equivalent to an old grade A, and is, therefore, a strong performance. In presentations to pupils and parents, I am always mindful to reinforce this point, as the likelihood of pupils achieving A-level 9 in multiple exams is very slim.

GCSE and A-levels give pupils an excellent grounding in learning skills and other attributes

Maintaining standards

Another recent headline in the Independent stated that pupils failing to achieve A-level 4 in GCSE English Language was ‘rubbing the noses of thousands of pupils in disappointment’. This statement actually made me laugh out loud; we cannot have increased rigour in GCSE exams, with more grades/levels at the top end, and then allow pupils who do not have a basic standard of English to ‘pass’. Forcing pupils to retake until they achieve A-level 4 reinforces the importance of acquiring this basic standard. Surely, in order for British students to have employability skills, they need to be able to communicate in their native language?

Looking beyond academic teachings

Finally, I want to address the A-level/baccalaureate debate, and the argument about A-levels being unfit in preparing students for work. A-levels and the baccalaureate are distinctly different, and suit different pupils. To blame A-levels – and even degree courses – for being insufficient preparation for work is very harsh.

Academic study from 16+ needs to be supplemented by schools and students themselves. The former should offer a ‘super’ curriculum, providing opportunities beyond A-levels; offering learning experiences for example – such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) – as well as the chance to study courses online, and opportunities for leadership, mentoring, and education in terms of finances and current affairs.

At Ipswich High School we do this by offering the Orbit Programme for sixth formers, encompassing the aforementioned amongst many other opportunities. Students should also take it upon themselves to get Saturday jobs to get the experience of work, customer service, and to understand the need for commitment and reliability.

Still fit for purpose

In conclusion, GCSE and A-levels are, in my opinion, still fit for purpose. They are not the be-all and end-all, but do give pupils an excellent grounding in learning skills and other attributes. Perhaps, if these external examinations were allowed to embed without further tampering – alongside other extrinsic factors, such as the irregularities surrounding exam marking and grade boundaries, to name but a couple – students and schools would have more of a chance of educating pupils beyond GCSE and A-levels? Just a thought!

Nicola Griffiths
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