GCSEs test accuracy, not intellectual achievement

They were designed as official school-leaving exams, but now they are inadequate and unfair

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GCSE results are here again. They are better than ever and the girls have moved even further ahead of the boys. But do we really need GCSE exams - or any other 16+ test - anyway?

GCSE results are here again. They are better than ever and the girls have moved even further ahead of the boys. But do we really need GCSE exams - or any other 16+ test - anyway?

GCSEs replaced the previous system of O-levels and CSEs as a common national examination at the end of compulsory schooling. Unlike either of its predecessors, it was designed to be accessible to 80 per cent or more of 16+ pupils. Much of the exam material and many coursework tasks are mundane and intellectually unstimulating. Good students may well become bored.

The problem is that if insufficient easy material is included, those awarded low grades will be unable to attempt most of the question papers, while the inclusion of too much material of that kind makes it very difficult to distinguish fairly between the higher grades.

The academic challenge of the examinations, or lack of it, leads to a requirement for very high marks if a candidate is to obtain the top two grades. These therefore tend to reward mechanical accuracy above intellectual achievement, which goes largely untested. This situation worsened when the A* grade was introduced. It was installed without any more challenging material being introduced, and so placed an even higher premium on accurate response to straightforward questions.

Two years ago, one of our year 11 boys sat GCSE and A-level physics in the same term: he obtained an A grade in the A-level, yet gained only an unstarred A at GCSE. He concluded that he had not written down sufficient explanations to some GCSE questions "because the answers were so obvious". Students of this calibre are not best served by the current system which subjects them to a two-year programme high on volume and low on academic challenge. Similarly, at the other end of the ability spectrum, a very low score is required for a G grade, and candidates at this level must find the papers highly demotivating: it would be like giving an A-level student a final degree paper.

I would not counsel a return to the old O-level and CSE systems. No matter what those of us who sat these choose to remember, the former was too often a charter for last-minute cramming of material which was sometimes only partially understood, and the latter was almost universally seen as a second-class qualification - perhaps with some justification.

It is arguable that our current GCSEs contain too much coursework. We know that coursework appears to favour more conscientious girls over less conscientious boys, but, more worryingly, it gives a great advantage to those from middle-class homes with computers and well-educated parents.

But the main reason for questioning GCSEs is this: why do we need a national examination at 16+ when the majority of young people continue their studies beyond this age? It was originally designed as a school-leaving examination; if this purpose cannot be demonstrated and no other one can be identified, why must we persist with this costly exercise?

It is surely time that we looked for a more coherent approach to 14+ education. We need more variety and more tailored programmes. For the gifted, it may be that the new modular AS-levels will be more suitable. If the first part of this examination could replace GCSE in nine or so subjects, then it could lead naturally to greater subject breadth in the lower sixth year and more challenges for those who find GCSEs too easy. Vocational AS-levels should provide a parallel pathway, with opportunities for diversity. Even if these Trojan horses fail to help us to storm the citadel, I hope that I will see the demise of GCSEs before I retire. It has made an admirable attempt at the impossible but it is becoming an irrelevance which too often compromises the education we offer.

* Graham Able is Master of Dulwich College.

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