GCSEs fail the test 

The bluebells and blossom have faded away and a new season has begun. As unchanging as the cycle of the natural world it comes around every year. Exam season is here and school halls are filled with the sound of silence.


But do we need all these exams?  I am sure we do not. We need some sort of testing at the end of primary school to see how much children have learned during six years of education, and a good argument can be made for post-16 exams. At the secondary stage, however, I am strongly of the view that we can safely dispense with GCSEs. They are not necessary and nor do they provide the best possible education for our young people.


They are not necessary because they do not adequately fulfil two of the essential purposes for which they are intended: selecting and preparing young people for their future employment.


With regard to selecting them they are steered into either vocational or academic routes on the basis of their grades. This is not sensible at this point in their education as they will continue to develop their cognitive and practical skills after the age of sixteen as well as change their minds about what they want to do. Moreover, it is my belief that if they are well-motivated and work hard they can probably train for most occupations, whether academic or practical, thus making selection by GCSE results unnecessary.


As for preparing young people for employment this is equally inadequate. Looking at the exam process itself, rather than the content of what is being tested, the ability to write at breakneck speed about the characters in Romeo and Juliet, or the factors that led to the rise of Hitler, is not a skill that is ever likely to be required in the world of work.(1) Nor for that matter is the ability to solve quadratic equations at a rapid rate.


But how good is the actual quality of education that GCSE courses provide? Pupils certainly learn about most aspects of the world in which they live and are able to develop creative and practical skills, but their education is not as beneficial as it should be. One reason for this is that the production-line model created by GCSEs is not conducive to instilling a genuine love of learning. Cramming for exams, and pressure to complete a syllabus, limits opportunities to make schoolwork interesting and engaging, and acquiring knowledge is seen as a means of attaining a good grade at GCSE rather than gaining intrinsic pleasure from a subject.


It is time to replace GCSEs with a basic skills test taken at 15 that would assess English, maths, critical thinking and IT. Up until that age pupils would still follow a national curriculum but it would be taught in ways that enthused them with learning. Post-15 they would begin to prepare properly for specific employment and this is when they would need to be rigorously assessed on their capabilities.


GCSEs fail the test of selecting and preparing young people for employment and also of providing them with the best possible education. They should be phased out as soon as possible.



1   This is not to say, of course, that young people should not learn about the factors that led to the rise of Hitler. They certainly should, as how such situations arise is an essential aspect of history which everyone should know about.




This is a revised version of Thoughts on ... GCSEs failing the test (3)


Note: I've been writing posts about abolishing GCSEs for quite some time now. The whole subject of exams forms a chapter in my book about education: Forever Learning.