Abolish GCSEs, turn the tide on toxic testing

Submitted by AWL on 23 November, 2021 - 9:20 Author: A Lewisham teacher

Over the last ten years Workers’ Liberty school workers have been at the forefront of pushing the debate about testing in schools in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and in its successor the National Education Union (NEU).

In 2019 we wrote a motion passed at the NEU’s national conference which committed the union to an indicative ballot of members to boycott the statutory tests in primary schools. The ballot result was strong, but sadly not built upon. Last year, we wrote a motion, passed with amendments, that committed the union to call for the abolition of GCSEs.

On 23 October Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Kevin Courtney, posted an article on Facebook entitled “Should we reform GCSE exams?” Although the union’s democratically agreed position is abolition, not reform, there is much good in Courtney’s article.

He starts by outlining the system:

Our 16 year olds sit 30 separate GCSE exam papers, across three weeks in the summer. Not 30 hours of exams; 30 separate exams usually longer than one hour.

They generally aren’t allowed reference books of any sort; memorisation is key.

There is almost no other form of assessment, which contributes to their GCSE grade, at least in the GCSEs which count towards league tables; it all rides on the exams

Their teachers will generally have spent months working with them on exam technique and revision, because they want their pupils to do well and their school wants to do well in league tables

Many pupils will also have had private tutors also concentrating on exam technique, again because their parents want them to do well and get good grades in the exam race

The pupils’ scripts are marked by examiners and then the exam boards distributes the grades by a process they call “comparable outcomes” which rations the number of grades; this is a “norm referenced” system not a “criterion referenced” system.

Then, after the exams, pupils stop studying most of the subjects they have worked so hard for and narrow down for A- levels.

The system is in essence the same as when GCSEs were introduced in 1988, Michael Gove made them significantly worse by

a) changing the way the league tables are counted, to say some subjects matter more than others (…)

b) introducing the comparable outcomes system after a grade inflation panic and

c) removing the big majority of non exam assessment — there was a lot more coursework in some exam boards in the early period.


This brings many problems.

1. England tops the OECD’s own league table for rote learning — as reported by both teachers and students.

2. We are testing recall, but that means we aren’t assessing or developing skills in the subject

3. Our system narrows down learning far faster than other countries.

4. This system of 30 all or nothing exams following months of cramming is a major contributor to adolescent anxiety and mental illness.

5. The system of rationing grades means one third of children are told that have failed English (the language they actually speak!) or Maths every year.

6. The high stakes nature for schools leads to many so called “unexplained exits”.

Courtney continues: “On the first two points — rote learning is good for many things — multiplication tables is the obvious example. But it is not good for higher order thinking. You actually have to transform knowledge, to manipulate it in real jobs and adult life — not just to recall it…

“An exam system focussed on recall means it is not focussed on building team-work, initiative or creativity.

“And our system is so narrow — much more than other countries; the number of students whose A levels cover three out of the five big buckets of Humanities, Sciences, Maths, Languages or Vocational studies has halved since 2010 — from 38% to 17%. And vocational education is always the poor relation. Yet our modern world is so interdisciplinary.

“Perhaps worst of all our system is bad for disadvantaged children. The one third who fail every year are the most disadvantaged children, those with SEND, those with free school meals. And let’s be clear — they haven’t ‘failed’, they just haven’t scored as well as another child in this system of exam races we have. Just think: even if every teacher and every student worked twice as hard, still a third would be told they have failed and still it would be the same third. We are rationing success.

“Maybe sometimes we need exams to ration: perhaps medical courses are oversubscribed so you want to ration entry. But we don’t have to ration the number of 16 year olds who become 17 year olds!

“And that’s not the only way disadvantaged children are damaged by this system: they are also the children you find leaving schools when heads say to parents this school is ‘too academic for your child’.”

Later, despite his “reform” headline, Courtney states the issue more clearly in line with union policy:

“Do we need any high stakes exams at all at 16 — if all young people are staying in education or training until 18?

“Should we instead say that every 16 year old should do something big, with the sort of challenge you get from the Duke of Edinburgh award, alongside formative assessments by their teachers?

“Shouldn’t our assessment system be essentially criterion referenced not norm referenced — that is like the music grade system. There is no rationing of the number of children who get a music grade 4 each year. Why is there a rationing system of how many children can get a Maths grade 4 each year? This isn’t ‘prizes for all’ — some children don’t get their grade 4 music — but they can practise more and get it next time.

“Now I’ve concentrated on GCSE — but there are so many similar arguments around the phonics check, the multiplication check, the baseline assessment , the key stage 2 SATs..”


Taken as a whole, the article is strong. The problem is: how do we achieve change? Remember Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the largest school workers’ union in Europe and the fourth biggest trade union in the UK, claiming over half a million members. In the middle of the article, Courtney states:

“Now the National Education Union has set up an independent commission to look at all of this. It is genuinely independent and we many or may not agree with all of the conclusions it reaches.” This would be ok if it were a small part of the union’s overall strategy. In fact, it is almost the entirety of the union’s strategy.

The union has spurned the opportunity thrown up by the 2019 indicative ballot on primary tests and the further opportunities by the cancellation of examination and tests during the pandemic. This year baseline testing for all reception children (four year olds!) was rolled out and the Department of Education is threatening a return of Key Stage 3 SATs. Strong words, lobbying and Independent Reviews aren’t turning the tide on toxic testing.

As a motion written by Workers’ Liberty school workers for the 2022 NEU conference puts it:

“Despite strong policy and lobbying by our union, the burden of toxic testing is increasing year on year... The only way to stop this is effective collective action.”

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.