GCSEs test accuracy, not intellectual achievement

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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ukip leader Farage with former Tory MP Carswell, who has defected to his party  

Could Douglas Carswell be a Trotskyite in disguise?

John Rentoul
Richard Attenborough, who died on 25 August, attends a film premiere  

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

DJ Taylor
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution