From education to employment

Scrapping GCSEs would be a major set back for lifelong learning

Ros Morpeth OBE, Chief Executive of the National Extension College

Should they stay or should they go? The debate over the future of #GCSEs 

The debate on whether to ditch GCSEs is escalating. A question mark over the future of the qualification has been hanging around for a while, but the chaos over the botched centre-based assessments for GCSEs and A levels last year was a catalyst that sparked the clamour for change,

A campaign called Rethinking Assessment, supported by a broad coalition of schools, universities, academics, employers, stakeholders and influencers, is calling for a reform of GCSEs. Others have joined the debate.

In a letter entitled “Education system not fit for purpose“, Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon and others described GCSEs as “pointless”, preferring a baccalaureate-style qualification instead. And the Girls Schools Association said (in The Times in November 2019) that GCSEs were “outmoded and draining”, belonging “in the Victorian age”.

They have a point. But their views reveal a very narrow vision of education, based on an assumption that all GCSE pupils are teenagers studying in a school. Reading some recent articles and media stories on the subject, it is telling that there is not one mention of further education colleges or adult learners.

Although not as significant in terms of numbers, adult learners are particularly important as part of the drive to reskill the nation and get the economy working again. GCSEs have provided an essential stepping stone for adults (anyone aged 18 or over) who need a second chance. Some have left school with few or no qualifications and need GCSEs to have any chance of finding a job. Think about the number of times you see the requirement in job advertisements for good GCSE grades in English and in maths. Others may be seeking a career change and need to satisfy entry qualifications for professions such as teaching, healthcare and social care. Postgraduate teacher training courses at primary school level, for instance, require GCSEs in English, maths and a science in addition to an undergraduate degree.

Former Tory Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker argues that there is no need for formal assessment at age 16 when the law requires young people to remain in education or training (an apprenticeship or traineeship) until age 18.

Moreover, the UK is the only country in Europe to test pupils at age 16 as well as 18, which adds more ammunition to the case for abolition. Others share concerns about students’ mental health by placing too much stress on them at a vulnerable stage in their development. One solution being discussed is a network of locally assessed arrangements run by schools that might remove the pressures.

Not all level 2 students are young people

Compelling arguments. But this would be a major set back for lifelong learning, discriminating against adults who want to study GCSEs. If they are to be abolished then another widely recognised level 2 qualification assessed to national standards needs to  take its place.

Here are three reasons why:

First, any locally assessed arrangements run by schools will not be accessible to adult learners.

Second, further education colleges will have to be given an incentive in order to provide a solution, as few now run part-time GCSE courses (once a booming area) for adults.

Changes in funding rules, unfortunately, have made them financially unviable for most colleges. As a result, there has been an increasing demand to study GCSEs by distance learning which surged during lockdown. Tragically, many distance learning students discovered when the exams were cancelled in 2020 that they were unable to get centre assessed grades as they had not studied at a school or college (a recognised centre). Not all distance learning providers have exam centre status, which meant that students’ work could not be graded. (The National Extension College is one exception as it has centre status.). We are hoping that the situation of private candidates will be managed better this year.

Third, GCSEs have ‘currency’.

They may be a little frayed around the edges, but are still regarded by employers as the gold standard. Over the years all manner of qualifications have rolled on and off the education conveyor belt – GNVQs, the DVE, the CPVE (if you don’t know what they are that proves the point). They fell by the wayside because few employers understood them.

Now we are not advocating retaining the status quo. Far from it. The content of all GCSEs needs to be reviewed, along with assessment. The notion that getting people to sit in a silent exam hall for three hours without access to the internet, notes or books is hardly the best preparation for the world of work, or even higher education. In the real world people collaborate with others. Assessment by project or coursework is, arguably, a fairer and more realistic way of judging someone’s abilities, although it is vulnerable to plagiarism and cheating.

So where are we now?

The awarding body Pearson is currently undertaking a review of 14 to 19 qualifications. They are conducting a consultation, ending on 31 March, to elicit views from students, parents and the education sector on how the assessment system can be fit for the 21st century. GCSEs will clearly be an important part of this.

But how much consideration will be given to the needs of adult learners? It is significant that Rod Bristow, Pearson’s president of UK and global online learning, said that Covid-19 will “force us all to adapt and rethink how we both educate and assess our young people”.

Yes, GCSEs and their assessment need an urgent rethink. And maybe our exam system is not fit for purpose for a post-Covid 21st century world. But Bristow’s mention of young people is an indication of a particular mindset,

Please let’s push home the message that not all students needing level 2 qualifications such as GCSEs are young people aged 14 to 19, studying full time in a school or college.

Whatever emerges must be flexible enough to incorporate learners of all ages. And it must be a qualification that is widely recognised and valued by employers, higher education and most importantly by the students themselves.

By Anne Nicholls, Communications Consultant Specialising in Education, and Ros Morpeth OBE, Chief Executive of the National Extension College

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