May 16, 2022

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And they’re off. A thunder of feet outside the sports hall, a shuffling to desks, then breathing, sniffing and the squeak of the invigilator’s trainers; after a two year break, GCSE season has re-opened. England’s 16-year-olds may turn over and begin.

The pens are new in the transparent pencil cases; the pencils sharp. They won’t stay that way. Many students will endure 30 hours of exams, spread over six weeks, all the way through the hay fever season, into flaming June. The pressure is tangible. The scribbling students have been harangued about these exams since Year 7. Or maybe even before then, when they toured the local secondary schools with their parents, for GCSEs are the public measure of schools. For state schools in particular, they are still the most important part of their reputation.

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Since then, there have been many assemblies, reams of mock exams, and much money spent: an average school will have paid the examination boards about as much as a senior teacher’s salary just to get the papers marked. If their school is going through a process of improvement, there may have been even more: summer schools, bribes, gimmicks, posters in corridors, school heroes and villains. At the end of all this there will be results and tears and league tables. Parents will look at those as they chose a school, and then the whole cycle will start again.

But what will the pupils themselves get out of it? There will be learning, of course, in this intense communal effort and focus. But there will be considerable narrowing too. Many academy chains, despite the campaigning of Ofsted, still prefer to have students pick their GCSEs in Year 8, when they are 12 or 13, all the better to double down and narrow in. Within these subjects, new learning will have stopped last Christmas: since then, it’s all been revision. Despite all this, nearly a fifth of the students in the room will come away with Grade 4s, the lowest pass possible. Around 10% of them will get a 1 or 2, and they probably know it. Someone in the building will probably crack under all this: our exam system is surely one reason 15-year-olds have such poor mental health. 

Afterwards, there will be proms, hugs, shirt-signing, tears: the rites of passage of leaving. But they aren’t leaving. All of them, by law, are supposed to stay in education or training till they are 18. So what were the GCSEs for? Mostly, 16-year-olds are too busy to ask. Even the luckiest third, the ones who have taken the whole course at a decent canter, hopped over all the jumps with the minimum upset (good health and a supportive, consistent home are a vast help at GCSE), have no resits to do, a decent hand of 7-9s in a range of subjects, an eye on university and a place in their own school sixth form, are preoccupied. They have to choose their A Levels.

Another narrowing, a sudden one: from 11 limited subjects to 3 in academic depth. Here is a loss even for the most academic students: they must prefer sciences over arts, drop humanities or languages, decisions which affect their entire lives. And nothing to be done about it because in England there is no longer an intermediate Higher or AS level.

The student with 6 and 7s across the board, able in most things but specialising in none, good in school but not studying much at home, needs that intermediate level even more. None of the narrow, difficult A levels may really be for him; and there is no leeway to experiment. Disproportionately, such students come from non-middle-class homes. Annually, they make choices which sound practical but which will disadvantage them later: Law over French, Media Studies over History.

Once chosen, many will find the A Level a leap. GCSE is an end point, it acts as a block to advanced learning. In languages, for example, teachers are under pressure to skip out blocks of grammar: the emphasis is on vocabulary; a pass can be had without it. English GCSE may be passed without independent reading of long texts, Biology without much Maths. But A Level will ask for skills in all these things, and established habits of study and a place to work too. Long hours of paid work and commutes take a toll on all that: it’s not surprising that the drop-out rate among disadvantaged students is nearly 15%. Nationally, fewer than half of our students end up with 2 A Levels.

None of this is anything, though, to the sufferings of that failing 35%. They will enter the underfunded, undervalued and confusing world of English vocational learning, often at a lower academic level than they have already attained. The courses available are truncated by the insistence of GCSE at 16. There are very many — EAL learners, disadvantaged students — who simply need a little more time to succeed at GCSE level. But a three-year course, say, in Electrical Engineering, with Higher Maths and GCSE English, all assessed in a single baccalaureate at 18, does not exist in England.

There are options like that in Germany. Across Europe, 16-year-olds are mostly a year or more into such courses, vocational or academic. Finns manage to move from school to technical or academic colleges at 16 on a minimal set of teacher assessments and standardised computer tests, and yet emerge much higher up the PISA rankings: better educated at nearly every level. Even the French, surely as obsessed with hierarchical education and competitive exams as any nation could be, only examine once, at 18. No other country sets a vast bank of exams two years before leaving school.

But other countries in Europe don’t wear acrylic blazers to school, either. The GCSE shares a mythic root. Once there were O Levels and CSEs, and grammar schools and secondary moderns, and gyms with wooden floors and hymns in assembly, and this, against all historical evidence, believe the Tory Party, the Daily Mail and my granny, was Better.

Though the Tories abolished the O Level, in fact. It went in 1987, just before Kenneth Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill, or Gerbil. GCSE joined up O Level and CSE: a qualification for everyone. Unfortunately, its invention coincided with those of the excel sheet, the internet, and the Gerbil’s worst innovation: competition between schools as policy. By 2013, a school’s pass rate at GCSE was being surveyed in a thousand public data sets and, inevitably, monstrously gamed. Coursework elements meanwhile were being destroyed by internet plagiarism, and the AS Level had been invented, turning the final three years of school into a maze of elaborate examinations. It would have been a fine moment to abolish the GCSEs and tackle the problem of vocational education. Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, had the ambition and drive to do it.

But Gove was also, and more profoundly, a populist. Instead, of abolition, he tried to make the GCSE as much like an O Level as possible, abolishing coursework, doubling down on handwriting and rote learning, and entrenching failure by introducing grading by proportion. Gavin Williamson had another excellent chance at major reform during the pandemic; sadly, he was far too dim. Nadim Zahawi is much cleverer, but his White Paper indicates little interest.

Why would it, and why would he? GCSE is such an entrenched part of school experience that people inside schools and out accept it like the weather. Deep reform of the sky will never be as popular as selling umbrellas. It would take a truly radical, dedicated politician to push it forward, and we’re short of those. It would help though, if the electorate could even think about a world without GCSE. Dear reader, can we start there?