September 14, 2023 - 1:15pm

Latymer Upper School, a top independent school in Hammersmith, West London, has just announced that it will be dropping all GCSEs apart from English and Maths, instead creating its own qualifications designed to more creatively “stretch” its pupils. The assessments would keep traditional written exams, but also include vivas, group work projects, presentations, online assessments and fieldwork. 

Latymer is not the first to break away from the GCSE system. Bedales, one of the most expensive schools in the country, already offers Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) alongside GCSEs in subjects such as Ancient Civilisations, Digital Game Design and Global Awareness. Sevenoaks School in Kent created Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSCs) in 2010 for eight subjects including Music History and Technology Robotics. There has also been a huge surge in the number of private schools taking IGCSEs, while institutions such as Rugby and Wellington have moved to the broader International Baccalaureate over A-levels.

In many ways, moving away from the outdated GCSE model makes a lot of sense: teachers can redesign and update the curriculum to focus on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, all of which will be vital in an automated, AI-driven world.

Yet there are risks to this approach. If Latymer is assessing and awarding its own qualification, then there needs to be some process of rigorous moderation to make sure that teachers aren’t simply marking their own homework. The assessments also need to be designed in a way that ensures pupils — and schools — don’t “game” the system. Exams are still the best leveller we have: we know that coursework, controlled assessments and other internal tests no longer work in a world where private tutors, ChatGPT and plagiarism-evading software are only a click away.

One also wonders how state schools will feel about this departure. Many academies and free schools equally want to innovate: School 21 in Stratford, for example, does impressive work with oracy, while XP School in Doncaster teaches its timetable through projects rather than subjects, with a focus on US-style “expeditionary learning”. Yet for all their supposed autonomy, they do not have the freedom or flexibility, as private schools do, to move away from GCSEs, as they risk being crucified by league tables and by Ofsted. 

As the private sector makes these changes, state schools may feel embittered that they are still being forced to drill students for old-fashioned (and potentially harder) public exams. Many state schools already feel frustrated that they are not allowed to do IGCSEs, and could feel increasingly stifled by the rigidity of GCSEs as they watch other schools pioneer new courses. In addition, Latymer’s inclusion of presentations and oral assessments will surely be ideal preparation for the pressure of an Oxbridge interview, and university admissions tutors may be swayed by the more interesting, eclectic and up-to-date content offered by private schools.

There is no doubt that GCSEs are in desperate need of modernisation, but the move away from them altogether risks further entrenching the divisions between state and private because of its inherent exclusivity. Rather than undermining the exams process, private and state schools need to come together to put pressure on Ofqual and exam boards to reform the curriculum in the face of profound technological and social changes.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.