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GCSEs should be replaced by digital assessments

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New @EDSKthinktank report on the future of #GCSEs 

On the day that Ofqual closes its consultation on how grades should be awarded for this summer’s exams, a new report from education think tank EDSK calls for GCSEs to be scrapped by 2025 as part of an overhaul of secondary education in England.

The report called ‘Re-assessing the future: Part 1 – how to move beyond GCSEs’ recommends that the Department for Education should replace GCSEs with national computer-based assessments in almost all National Curriculum subjects.

The report identifies a wide range of issues facing GCSEs even before COVID appeared. Requiring 16-year-olds to sit as much as 30 hours of onerous high-stakes written examinations when they are legally required to stay in education or training for at least another two years after this point is plainly disproportionate and unnecessary. Aside from the burden that GCSEs place on pupils and their teachers, the cost to schools of delivering the current system of exams at age 16 has now reached almost £200 million a year.

The report also finds that the dominance of GCSEs in our school system has other worrying consequences. Pupils are no longer receiving a broad and balanced curriculum in the run-up to their GCSEs if their schools shorten Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) so that they can teach GCSEs over three years to improve their exam results. As a result, subjects such as art, music and design and technology are increasingly being lost from the middle years in secondary school. In addition, GCSEs crowd out technical qualifications available from the ages of 14 to 16, even if the latter are better suited to pupils’ aptitudes.

Meanwhile, the grading system used for GCSEs – known as ‘comparable outcomes’ – means that one-third of pupils are forced to ‘fail’ their exams each year. The GCSE resits policy compounds this issue because it labels pupils as having ‘failed’ English or maths at 16, only to then demand that they should study these subjects beyond age 16 despite the low probability of improving their grade.

This report – the first of two major publications from EDSK on the future of assessment and accountability – concludes that a new approach is needed to create a coherent secondary education system built around external tests that encourage aspiration and progression for all pupils while reducing the burdens placed both on pupils and teachers.

The EDSK report recommends that:

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  • By 2025, GCSEs should be replaced by national computer-based assessments in almost all National Curriculum subjects at age 15, which will operate as a halfway ‘staging post’ on every pupil’s journey through secondary education.
  • The computer-based assessments will typically last 1.5-2 hours for each subject, representing a significant reduction on the current norm of 3.5-4 hours per subject.
  • Existing National Curriculum subject entitlements up to the age of 14 should be extended to age 15, and all academies will be forced to follow the National Curriculum from the ages of 11 to 15.
  • The new computer-based assessments will match the rigour of GCSEs by testing pupils’ understanding of essential knowledge and key concepts listed in the current National Curriculum and GCSE specifications for each subject.
  • Each student will be awarded a ‘certificate’ that documents the results they have achieved in the new digital assessments for each subject, but no letter or number-based grades will be issued and the use of ‘comparable outcomes’ will be scrapped.
  • Pupils will choose which type of courses and qualifications (e.g. school, college or apprenticeship) they wish to pursue after age 15 based on the results of these new digital tests as well as advice given to them by teachers and careers advisors.

Tom Richmond100x100Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK and a former advisor to ministers at the Department for Education, said:

“GCSEs have been an important part of our education landscape for over three decades, but the unprecedented events of the last year have created a rare opportunity to consider how we can do things better in future. We should start by replacing high-stakes GCSEs with low-stakes digital assessments that act as a ‘staging post’ for pupils as they move through secondary education. The flexibility offered by these digital tests will also help to ‘COVID-proof’ our assessment system from any future external shocks.”

“Putting hundreds of thousands of pupils through up to 30 hours of GCSE exams in order to sort them and their schools into successes and failures each year is a terrible use of precious time and money. While rigorous external tests can help to drive up educational standards, the continued presence of GCSEs prevents meaningful conversations about how we can build a world-class education system up to the age of 18, not 16.”

An Ofqual review published in December found IT provision, network capability, security, planning and staffing issues are the five key barriers to greater adoption of online and on-screen assessments in high stakes qualifications such as GSCEs and A Levels.

This first report from EDSK on reforming assessment and accountability focuses on the initial stages of secondary education in England. Having analysed and reconfigured the new secondary system up to the age of 15 in this report, the next publication from EDSK (scheduled for Spring 2021) will consider how to design and implement the later years of secondary education so that they build on the same objectives and principles described in this report. This will include in-depth discussions of existing academic and vocational qualifications as well as the institutions that deliver them.

Bill Watkin100x100Regarding assessment at 16, Bill Watkin, Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association said:

“Government figures show that 70% of 16 year-olds in England change institution, with many progressing to colleges or swapping one school for another. That’s why it is really important to measure what young people know, understand and can do at that age. The idea that examinations might be replaced by a shorter, less high-stakes and more rounded assessment model is certainly something that should be considered as we emerge from the pandemic and question whether or not to reinstate longstanding systems and structures, and whether or not to take advantage of the opportunity to do things differently, and better.” 

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