An ongoing debate

I have read over the last couple of weeks the criticisms regarding the ‘outdated’ GCSE and A Level examination system that have been voiced by several prominent people, namely the president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan and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 who was Education Secretary at the time said that GCSEs were not fit for purpose following an outcry over GCSE English results after a last minute C grade boundary change. John Cridland, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also came forward at the same time, arguing that abandoning GCSEs would deliver more of a well-rounded education.

I feel that we experiencing deja vu with the argument we are now hearing. The exam reforms that were brought in from September 2015 aimed to increase the rigour of both GCSEs and A Levels with the replacement of module exams with terminal examinations, matched with an increase in content in every subject. The outcome? Continued dissatisfaction and matched support for GCSEs to be scrapped. Lord Baker, who introduced GCSEs exams in the 1980s, supports the views of Robert Halfon that GCSEs are ‘outdated’ and Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union has expressed a similar opinion. The alternative? A call by Robert Halfon for vocational training alongside traditional A Level subjects to create a form of baccalaureate for 18 years olds, along with the scrapping of ‘high stake’ GCSEs, the latter was also supported by Geoff Barton. The justification for such a proposal is to make students more fit for employment and to remove the ‘great deal of pressure’ that students are put under whilst taking their GCSEs.

Pondering the debate: my view

Over the last week, I have been thinking about the GCSE/A Level debate and I have now arrived at my own opinion that I would like to share, hence writing this blog.

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 in producing 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 and, without GCSEs or A Levels, Universities would be faced with giving offers based on school predictions alone.

A valuable life skill
Personally, I think GCSEs are an excellent precursor to A Levels; it is far better to learn how to study and to deal with the stress of exams before sitting A Levels. I think it is naive to think that 16 year olds are able to do this on their own, and this is where I think there is a joint responsibility of parents and teachers to help students through this time period. At Ipswich High School we have lessons about how to revise in Year 9 as part of our study skills programme and we also have an annual student presentation from an award-winning revision company called 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 support them academically and pastorally.

High stakes
I also think that GCSEs have been 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 GCSE grading system, there is still a viewpoint held by parent and pupils that only a ‘9’ will do, even though a level 7 is still equivalent to an ‘old’ grade A, and is, therefore, a strong performance. In my 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.

Maintaining standards
Another headline in the Independent I read recently was a statement about 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 re-take until they achieve a level 4 reinforces the importance of having 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
So, in the final part of my blog, 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 I think that they suit different pupils. To blame A Levels and even degree courses for being insufficient preparation for work is very harsh. I do however think that academic study from 16+ needs to be supplemented by schools and students themselves. Schools by offering a ‘super’ curriculum; that provides other opportunities beyond A Levels that offer learning experiences, for example, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), opportunities to study courses online, as well as opportunities for leadership, mentoring and education in terms of finances and current affairs. At Ipswich High School we do just this by offering an ‘Orbit’ Programme for Sixth Formers, which encompasses 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, in my opinion, are still fit for purpose; they are not the ‘be and end all’, but they give pupils an excellent grounding in learning skills and attributes. Perhaps if these external examinations were allowed to ‘embed’ without further tampering and other extrinsic factors such as the irregularities surrounding exam marking and grade boundaries, to name but a few, students and schools would have more of a chance of educating pupils beyond GCSE and A Levels? Just a thought!

By Nicola Griffiths, Deputy Head
4 April 2019