Last year, Ken Baker, the Tory education minister responsible for introducing GCSEs and the national curriculum, said, “I am the author of GCSEs. I established those exams back in the 1980s, bringing together two exams” [O Levels and CSEs].
Baker claimed tests at 16 were then necessary “because lots of youngsters left school at 16,” but he went on to say, “Now with the leaving age going on to 18, you don’t need to test youngsters at 16. [GCSEs] are redundant.” (February 2019).
Head teachers from the Girls’ Schools Association — academically selective girls’ schools — have slammed GCSEs as “outmoded and draining”, forcing students on to a two-year treadmill to prepare them for five weeks of exams in ten or more subjects.
Some students might sit 25 GCSE exam papers under enormous pressure. It is hardly surprising that there is a mental health crisis amongst British teenagers, who are considered to be amongst the most miserable young people in the world.
The Independent noted (2016): “Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. The number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 and, in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have also almost doubled.
“In a 2016 survey for Parent Zone, 93 per cent of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers and 90 per cent thought the issues were getting more severe, with 62 per cent dealing with a pupil’s mental-health problem at least once a month and an additional 20 per cent doing so on a weekly or even daily basis.”
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, has spoken against GCSEs, which pressure teachers to “train to the test”, leading to a focus on rote learning above skills such as communication, problem-solving, and team-working.
Halfon, speaking out in February 2019, has his own agenda. His concern is the economic damage being done to British capitalism by a system unable to produce critical-thinking, IT-literate young people. He quotes The Open University as suggesting skills shortages are costing British capitalism £6bn per year.
Halfon wants to replace GCSEs with a baccalaureate qualification at age 18 that would recognise both the academic and vocational sides of education.
His concerns are repeated by the leaders of the bosses’ organisation, the CBI. Back in 2015 John Cridland, director general of the CBI, called for the abolition of GCSEs, noting that most countries don’t test at 16. “We have to face the uncomfortable truth that — internationally — we’re the oddballs.”
Nevertheless calls for change have met strong opposition. The Department for Education has called GCSEs “the Gold Standard” and officials argue that recent reforms have made GCSEs better fitted to current needs (i.e. the current needs of capitalism). Cridland replied that reform of GCSEs “misses the point that we need curriculum reform, not just exam reform.” He complained that current vocational education is a “restricted, unloved range of options” and “a social and economic own goal… Non-academic routes should be rigorous and different to academic ones, but not second best.”
The strange thing about this discussion within the ruling class is its lack of echo in the labour movement. In most school staff rooms, today, when a school worker suggests GCSEs should be abolished, they are most likely met with blank stares or shock. It is not an argument most teachers and teaching assistants have heard. It is not an idea many have ever thought about.
The problem is partly the timidity of Labour Party and National Education Union (NEU) leaders. Take the current crisis over exams. The Labour Party has concentrated on attacking Gavin Williamson’s competence. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the central job the Labour Party is supposed to do — to critique policy and provide a radical alternative — is not done.
Labour’s recent call for GCSE and A Level exams to be pushed back a month, to July 2021, was predicated on the idea that the government was about to do it anyway. The last thing they want is to cause controversy that will take the focus away from Williamson’s ineptitude. Nevertheless, that is what students need from Labour.
Next year’s GCSE students will have missed four months of classes and may well see their schools close, or partially close, in response to future Covid spikes. The last thing they need is the stress of pointless exams next summer.
Melissa Benn calls for teachers to step-up and lead the debate (Guardian, 20 August). Benn says, rightly, that, “teachers and pupils tell regularly of how dull exam material is, how stressful and archaic the formula, how unfit for purpose. A third of pupils, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, fail to reach the required standard — that is a level 4 — in the reformed exams for English and maths. They come away not highly educated, but deeply discouraged.”
What should replace the abolished GCSEs? Nothing.
And how should students progress beyond 16? They must be allowed to study what they want in 16-18 education, taking, perhaps, six subjects instead of the current standard three A Levels. Broader is better.
16 year old students must also have the option of useful work, with continuing education, which is paid a living wage. Students who stay in full-time education after 16 should receive a living grant which will allow all to do so, should they wish.