The case for abolishing GCSEs                                              10/2/22


The thoughts which follow formed a chapter of my book "Forever Learning" which came out six years ago. Such was, and still is, our obsession with exams that I felt the subject deserved a chapter to itself. All the arguments still stand and I hope they make a strong case for a radical rethink of exams and the whole purpose of assessing learning in school. 

Not surprisingly, given the amount of political tinkering with education, a number of things have changed from six years ago including the way GCSEs are graded and the introduction of T levels.



Apologies for text presentation in this post.




Chapter 6



Two routes


The adverse effects that GCSEs have on learning and teaching were
considered in the previous chapter. I argued that they take up too much time, they can lead to cramming, they reduce the pleasure of learning and they leave little room for deviation from the syllabus. Unfortunately they are also a serious shortcoming of our education system in other respects and this is the theme of the discussion that follows.

Using grades and marks in exams, or for any piece of work, is the
traditional method of measuring attainment in school subjects. Everyone is
familiar with this. It has been woven into the fabric of education for
generations. Grades and marks show how much learning has been achieved
and indicate strengths that can be built upon and weaknesses that need to be addressed. Aiming for good grades or marks helps to motivate pupils and
when they are gained they are accompanied by a sense of achievement.

Crucially, the grades pupils receive in their GCSEs are used to select them
for the education and training to which they will proceed after the age of
sixteen. Depending on their GCSE results they can go in one of two
directions: either studying for A levels, or other courses such as BTECs,
with the aim of going to university, or immediately beginning a practical,
work-related training course. The first route has often been described as the
academic and the second the vocational. The academic route tends to involve
a good deal of theoretical study and the vocational a good deal of practical
work but we should remind ourselves that many theoretical ideas need to be
grasped in order to be trained vocationally and plenty of practical work is
often required in academic disciplines – medicine and engineering, for
example. It is generally thought that pupils who are strong in subjects which
require more abstract learning are better suited to the route of academic
study at university whereas pupils who are not so strong in these subjects but who may have good practical ability are better suited to the practical, work-related route.

Many people see the university route as the one to follow in order to
acquire the qualifications they believe are essential for obtaining well-paid
and secure employment. To take this route pupils at 16 are selected for their
A level or BTEC courses on the basis of the grades they obtain at GCSE.
The other route of a practical, work-related training course is taken by those
who do not have the required grades for the university route, those who
choose to be employed in a practical occupation and those who are just
drifting along without really knowing what they want to do.(1)

If the reason why young people are on a practical, work-related course is
that they do not have the required grades to take a course which will lead to
university they are, to a large extent, being selected for their future
employment on the basis of their schoolwork – the work they have done, or
not done, for their GCSEs. It is not too much of an exaggeration, therefore,
to say that schools are, in effect, one huge job selection agency with grades
at GCSE often being the key factor in the selection process.

Because grades gained at GCSE have become the means by which young
people are selected for their future education, and thus their likely future
employment, they are left in no doubt that the most important purpose of
their learning at secondary school is to obtain good GCSEs. In the final years
of their secondary education learning is seen as striving for exam success
more than deriving pleasure from acquiring new knowledge and skills.
Studying a subject seems to be as much about being able to add a grade C or above to one’s collection of grades as it is to be absorbed by its intrinsic

Striving for exam success is not a new phenomenon. It is what pupils have
been doing since nationally recognised qualifications were introduced. But
with more young people wanting to get to university in order to enter well-paid, secure, white-collar employment GCSEs have assumed an excessive importance. They are being used to select those who will pass through the gateway that many people see as leading to a good job and a successful life. It is no wonder this puts pressure on young people to achieve high grades in their exams.

The overemphasis on exams in the later stages of secondary school has, I
believe, an adverse effect on learning and teaching and diverts attention
away from other key purposes of schooling. I also believe it is questionable
whether GCSE exams are a useful method of selecting young people for
their future employment and questionable, too, whether they are useful in
preparing them for their future employment. In the remainder of the chapter I will explain why I believe this is so.

Job selection and work preparation

Job selection

Before deciding whether our preoccupation with GCSE grades is a useful
way of selecting or preparing people for employment we should take a brief
look at what is perhaps the most controversial debate in education: the
nature, nurture debate. The reason the issue should receive attention will
become apparent.

It is self-evident that human beings have different abilities. Some people
are fast runners, some are skilful with a football, some are artistic, some can
sing beautifully, some are good at making things and some are very clever at
maths. The big question is how do we come to have these different abilities.
Are they inherited in the same way as our physical features or are they
determined by other factors? Do we have a good ability in something
because we are born with the right genes – nature? Or do we have a good
ability in something because our parents and others have helped us develop
it – nurture? Similarly, do we have poor ability in something because our
genes are inadequate or do we have poor ability because our parents have not supported us properly at home.

It is an enduring legacy from the past that although there is now a clear
recognition of the effect of the home environment on children’s development
there is still a widespread belief that the characteristics children are born
with exert a powerful influence on their capabilities. We talk about children
having innate ability or an aptitude for something which according to the
dictionary means they have a natural ability. We also talk about the talents
and gifts which people have and assume they have been endowed with these
from birth.

The intention of the 1944 Education Act that pupils should be educated
according to their ability and aptitude was an endorsement of the belief in
the hereditary factor in child development. A further endorsement came in
the form of the eleven-plus which was established to discover who was
endowed with academic ability and who was not. Those who passed the
exam were deemed to have this ability and went to a grammar school and
those who failed were deemed not to have it – or enough of it – and went to
a secondary modern.

I do not know how many teachers or parents are in the heredity or
environment camp but I suspect a large number are in the former. They have
a usually unspoken feeling that we are probably all born with different
mental capabilities just as we are born with different physical features. There
is every likelihood that, as a result of the current interest in genetics among
scientists and the population at large, the number of people who hold this
view has increased in recent years compared with some decades ago when
the effect of the home environment was being widely discussed.

If people believe that genes explain our different capabilities it is
reasonable for them also to believe that we will be better at learning, and
doing, some things more than others and that our capabilities will differ from
person to person. If these beliefs are correct it might seem sensible to steer
pupils leaving school into courses suited to their capabilities and steer them
especially in either a practical or academic direction. Such beliefs lend
support to the use of GCSEs as it could be argued that the grades pupils
achieve indicate their innate capabilities and reveal their strengths and
weaknesses. The exams, according to this line of thinking, are consequently
a useful means of selecting young people for their future education and

The debate about the effect of heredity or environment is relevant, then, to
the issue of grades and exams because they are the tools which are used to
assess pupils’ abilities – abilities which, it seems to me, many people believe
are strongly influenced by what we inherit, or do not inherit, from our
parents. It should be said that not everyone agrees with the heredity
explanation for differences in abilities and aptitudes. Some believe that the
differences can largely be explained by differences in children’s upbringing
and no doubt some believe they are the result of a combination of both
heredity and upbringing.

My own view is this. I am prepared to accept that we may come into the
world with some small differences in ability or cognitive capacity just as we
come into the world with different physical features. Some people seem to
be born with a better musical ear, with more coordination, with better
memories, with more fluency of speech or with greater mental agility. A
very small number of people may be born with exceptional abilities which
turn them into child prodigies. I accept, of course, that there are many people who are born with specific disorders ranging from Down’s syndrome to dyslexia which affect their capacity to learn. In the case of dyslexia this can clearly have an effect on a child’s capacity to learn many school subjects.
There is something else I accept we are born with which accounts for
differences in educational attainment at school. Just as our biology
determines the rate at which we develop physically it probably also
determines the rate at which we develop mentally and this obviously has an
important effect on our capacity to learn.

What I am not prepared to accept is the idea that any innate differences in
our mental capabilities, except those associated with specific disorders, are
significant enough in themselves to account for wide differences in
attainment when we reach mental maturity. As I see it differences in pupil
attainment are not the result of inherited ability, or lack of it, but are largely
the result of differences in the learning influences that children experience at
home from an early age, differences in their motivation, differences in what
interests them and, ultimately, differences in the amount of effort they put
into their learning. I take this view because I believe that if we are fully
motivated and work hard the human brain provides us with an enormous
capacity for learning – whatever characteristics we may or may not have
been born with. This is equally the case beyond school where there are many
people who have not been very successful in the classroom who have been
motivated later on to take mentally demanding jobs and whose brains easily
cope with these demands.

It is my fervent belief that with the exception of those who have a serious
disorder we are all capable of learning to do almost anything and learning to
do it well. If we are well-motivated and put in sufficient effort, and if we are
encouraged and supported by parents, teachers and those around us, we can
acquire any skill and master any form of knowledge. We can certainly
become highly capable in both practical and academic tasks. If what I am
saying is true and our genes do not have a great effect on our capabilities
then we must assume that all pupils can be capable in all subjects, accepting
that some may develop at a slower rate, and we should have high
expectations of them in everything they learn. This is not only the route to
improving levels of attainment it is the route to providing equal opportunities
for everyone.

If all pupils can be capable in all subjects there is no need to use grades
gained at GCSE to try to identify who is suited to a particular occupation.
They will nearly all be able to be trained to do a wide range of jobs. It is
completely unnecessary, therefore, to have an elaborate system of exams and grades to select young people for their future courses.

What we need instead is to have high expectations for young people to
achieve a very good standard of learning across the curriculum. With good
all-round ability and a thorough mastery of basic skills in literacy, numeracy,
computing and critical thinking they would be capable of taking almost any
course they wished to take. Their choices would be guided by personal
preference and possibly some form of assessment for the courses in which
they were interested. This assessment would look at the ability they had
already acquired in their chosen field of study or training which would have
been gained as a result of their motivation, the effort they had put into their
work, the support and guidance they had received from their parents and
teachers and maybe, in some cases, a small element of inherited aptitude.

Once they were on their preferred course and heading for employment to
which they were attracted young people would be motivated to work hard
and this, not their genes, would develop their abilities still further. If,
however, they were to lose interest and motivation, and their training and
studies began to suffer, they would be asked to find an alternative course to

The examination system we have at the moment is not the best way to
select young people for employment. It perpetuates the mistaken belief that
grades gained in subjects studied at school indicate the natural aptitudes, or
lack of them, which make people suitable for certain types of employment
when actually they have the potential to do anything.(2)

Work preparation

I do not believe our exam system is the best way to select young people
for work and nor do I believe that it contributes very much to preparing them
for work. There are a number of reasons why I say this. One is that apart
from English, maths and computing, most of the other subjects they learn for
their exams will quite clearly not be relevant to the occupations they enter.
Studying history, geography, English Literature and science will obviously
be useful preparation for becoming a teacher in these subjects but will be of
very little use in preparing people to become train drivers, shop managers,
employees in financial services, care workers or dentists.

Another reason is that although some theoretical knowledge learned at
school may help in understanding the principles that lie behind a particular
job it is of limited value when it comes to the practicalities. Learning about
electricity in the classroom does not prepare an electrician to rewire a house
and nor does learning some elementary information about human anatomy
prepare someone to carry out heart surgery.(3) Further reasons for saying our exam system contributes little to preparing young people for work are the fact that the classroom is in many respects a world away from anything to do with the workplace and the fact that the actual processes involved in sitting an exam are not skills required in any job of which I am aware.

English, maths, computing and thinking skills are obviously essential
areas of learning for pupils in order to prepare them for employment but
studying other subjects at school is of limited use for this purpose. Apart
from these four core areas there is no reason why learning in other subjects,
and being examined in them, should be used as preparation for employment
because specific theoretical knowledge that is needed for particular
occupations can easily be learned later. As far as preparing pupils for work is
concerned schools only need to concentrate on ensuring they have a
thorough mastery of the core skills and possess the right attitudes for the
workplace. There is simply no point in schools testing them in subjects other
than core skills in order to try and assess specific knowledge and capabilities
they will need for their future employment.

Specific job preparation should be left until young people are engaged in
further and higher education. If schools are giving them basic skills for
employment, and colleges and universities are giving them specific skills,
they will leave formal education fully prepared for the occupations they
enter. Schools should not be vocationally orientated and it does not matter if
most young people, apart from those who become teachers, find that with the exception of basic skills very little of what they learned at school helps them do their jobs. Schools have other purposes to fulfil and pupils have other learning to undertake.

The future of exams and grades

If exams, grades and GCSE syllabuses are not useful or necessary for job
selection or preparation perhaps they have other uses. Exams, after all, are a
means of assessment and pupils need to be assessed to see how much they
have learned and how much they need to learn. They also provide motivation
and are used as a measure of school performance.

My feeling, however, is that we ought to be able to motivate pupils, assess
their learning and help them make progress without the need for GCSE
examinations and without regularly having to give them grades – or levels,
the system of assessment that was introduced with the original national
curriculum but which has now been discontinued.

Probably the best way to assess learning is for teachers to use short,
regular tests and assessments they compile themselves. When teachers mark these tests and assessments they should not give grades but use percentage scores or marks out of a possible total together with written comments. Importantly, they should identify the different components of a subject when marking or assessing so that pupils, and parents, know about specific strengths and weaknesses. A maths assessment, for example, would have separate scores or comments for fractions, percentages and geometry and a piece of writing would have separate comments about the quality of the ideas and about the way they were presented, including spelling and

As for motivating pupils the best way to do this is to make their work
interesting and engaging but having small, precise goals to achieve rather
than grades in exams is also a useful motivational strategy. Examples of
these goals would be swimming ten metres, knowing how to construct a pie
chart or learning the days of the week in a foreign language. These sorts of
goals produce motivation because they are clear and manageable.

With two exceptions national exams and qualifications can safely be left
until young people are older and focussing on their future employment. The
two occasions when pupils at school do need to be assessed with national
tests are at the end of the primary phase and at fifteen. At the end of primary school it seems reasonable that parents should have an objective measure of their children’s progress in English and maths since by then they will usually have had seven years of formal schooling as well as their preschool education. And at fifteen, when young people should be allowed to leave school, all pupils should be tested in English, maths, computing and thinking ability to ensure they have the necessary skills for their employment, daily life and future education and training.

Grades would not be used in these national tests at eleven and fifteen but
percentage scores would be given and comments made about different
aspects of the subjects which would include indicating areas which needed
strengthening. No doubt schools would be obliged to publish their results in
some form to show how they were performing but this would not generally
be the cause of too much media excitement.

My hope is that we move away from our obsession with examinations and
grades, away from the belief that there are significant differences in our
innate mental capabilities which account for substantial differences in
attainment and away from our ideas about the role of schools in selecting
and preparing young people for employment.

We should bring GCSEs to an end. They are not useful for selecting
pupils for future courses and occupations and nor are they useful for
preparing pupils for work. They are a time-consuming distraction from
fulfilling the many essential purposes of education, they cause too much
cramming of knowledge and they do too little to encourage an intrinsic
interest in learning. We should constantly remind ourselves that learning
history or physics should not be about producing good answers in an exam it
should be about understanding and assimilating knowledge that pupils can
store away and keep returning to as adults because they find it interesting.
The time for rigorous assessment is later when people start work and society
needs to know they are competent to do their job.

As well as bringing GCSEs to an end we must reject the notion that innate
ability determines whether we will be practical or academic, or even artistic
or sporting. Instead we must have the highest expectations for all pupils in
all areas of the curriculum and fully absorb the idea that motivation and
endeavour will greatly improve their learning whatever this may be.

We should be ensuring that the enthusiasm for learning that pupils have at
primary school is retained as they get older and we should be instilling a
love of learning that will last a lifetime. What is more, we should be giving
young people a body of knowledge and skills that will also last a lifetime
and not be forgotten as soon as they have taken their GCSEs. The gifts of a
love of learning and an enduring body of knowledge and skills are greater
gifts than a collection of grades gained in examinations. They would enable
people to find employment, be equipped with essential life skills, take
informed and thoughtful decisions about the way they lead their lives,
contribute to society and derive fulfilment from everything that learning has
to offer.


1 One measure of the extent of drifting can be seen in the NEET statistics, NEET standing for not in education, employment or training. In 2011 the Wolf Report stated that 31% of 18 year olds had been NEET at some point since leaving compulsory education.

2 The debate about how much of our ability is inherited stretches back into the twentieth century and beyond. It has often centred around the concept of
intelligence as measured by various tests. Proponents of the idea that intelligence is strongly influenced by our genes have included Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen and most recently Robert Plomin. The whole subject has frequently been controversial but it remains a fascinating area of learning. For those who would like to learn more about the nature/nurture debate the internet provides a great deal of interesting material.

3 I accept that learning a foreign language would be useful job preparation for some people but it would not be essential. An intensive course in a foreign language could be taken at a later stage if this were needed for employment purposes.