The GCSE format is in need of a shake-up. This is certainly the attitude of many Politicians today. The format, a mixture of exams and classroom assessment as well as the breadth of subjects covered and opportunity to pupils of differing abilities, has already been modified as its development has inched forward over 25 years. Not every subject is the same and the need to urgently reform one subject or one part of the format, may not be matched by a similar need in another subject. In order to address this question, the essay will briefly review the history of the GCSE and identify those features that are felt to be in need of change and can be changed. In conclusion, it will review the various proposals.
There has been a lot of talk about GCSE failures. Anxiety was focused on Grade inflation and the suspicion that GCSE grading was flawed, but knee-jerk changes to the grade boundaries that dominated results in summer 2012, where many students failed to achieve the predicted Grade C, led to calls to Ofqual over harsh marking and claims that a “gross injustice was done to many young people”; other concerns focus on cheating or unfair practice, and the ranging of the bells. A variety of lawmakers have increasingly called for the GCSE to be supplemented by more stringent exams with updated rating structures. However, removing the GCSE is not straightforward, and current proposals have already been deferred until 2018.
Since the 1950s, there has been a controversy in British politics over the regular high school test. Shirley Williams, the then education minister, suggested changes to the O level scheme in the 1970s, but the election of a Conservative government in 1979 put a stop to her plans for a single standardized assessment that would mimic comprehensive schooling.
The English-based O Level and CSE were substituted by the larger GCSE from 1986 to 1988 under plans drawn up by Keith Joseph in 1984 following improvements to the Scottish Ordinary Grade exam for high school children and the creation of the Scottish Standard. The O standard, which is now set by the University of Cambridge International Examinations board, has persisted in the Commonwealth, with a similar exam focused in Hong Kong that has just recently switched to the IGCSE. GCSEs are now rated from A to G (and U) and include about 60 subjects, including a variety of vocational classes that were formerly part of the GNVQ exams (General National Vocational Qualifications). (General National Vocational Qualifications). Many competing boards, such as AQA, CCEA, Edexel, OCR, and WJEC, run exams on a “general timetable” between May and June each year. As a result, many prominent subjects are presented by a range of competing boards, such as AQA, CCEA, Edexel, OCR, and WJEC. Ofqual, DCELLS (Wales), and CCEA manage the commissions (Ireland).
The School Exams and Evaluation Council, later the QCA, was formed in 1991 to determine and track what was an appropriate standard of accomplishment for the GCSE. It’s impossible to stop parental support or too much instructor instruction.
The controversy about selection in education has influenced the creation of the GCSE. With the significant exception of Germany, which maintains certain characteristics of selective education, several countries have stepped away from routine selection. Not only were the mechanisms of selection challenged (such as an IQ exam or a social abilities test at a certain age), but the notion that one child could be granted benefits that another child was not was found to be false. In the late 1950s, a trend in the United Kingdom witnessed the elimination of gender inequality and attempts to disregard parents’ economic backgrounds. The elitist regime that remained in the United Kingdom until the early 1960s permitted only a limited number of students to continue their academic studies in school until they reached the age of 18, after which they could proceed to higher education. Almost half of the remaining population have no credentials. Today’s students consider university participation as a “right of passage”.
Proposals to modify or abolish the present GCSE reflect some of this debate. For example, people worried about the pressures of an exam taken at 11 that would determine the future of a child’s life. Should the child succeed and enter Grammar school or High school, then an academic career that included education in a University was on offer but should a child fail at 11, then the only alternative was a Secondary Modern education and the probability of leaving school at 15 or 16. The single exam at 11 determined the future in a very real way. The modular element of GCSE together with the classroom assessment of materials for coursework were ways to reduce the pressure of a once-for-all exam. Indeed, it has been possible for much of the time the GCSE has operated, to take particular modules again and again and improve the overall score and grade. Writing to the Guardian (2012), Simon Gosden says the GCSE that “..with all its faults, opened up the possibility of attending university for so many students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” Modules and Coursework are open to abuse and new proposals have tended to focus again on the examination element and propose limitations to the process of continuous assessment.
With the introduction of mixed-ability or Comprehensive education throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the academic distinction between the Grammar school or High School and the Secondary Modern was removed. However, the examination system had not caught up with this change. In the 1950’s a child at a Secondary Modern School was unlikely to be offered the opportunity of sitting an O level exam and might, particularly before the introduction of the CSE in 1965, well leave school with no qualifications at all Similarly, and partly because of snobbery, it was rare that a child in a Grammar school or Independent school would be offered a chance to sit a CSE, however poorly they were performing academically or however gifted they may have been in a subject the school regarded as non-academic and that was, therefore, not covered by the O level system or offered for examination to students. The new comprehensive schools, however, by selecting students capable of sitting the O level exams were forced to stream pupils into O level and CSE classes. This was a challenge to the very ethos of Comprehensive teaching and meant that many capable students who studied at schools unwilling to stream classes for O level and CSE exams, were either poorly prepared or unable to sit the O Level exam. Because the British two-tier exam system was felt to be unfair and divisive, and an increasing number of students were entered only for the CSE exams, the O Level and the CSE were effectively combined to form the present GCSE. This was a lengthy process that began with an experimental examination called the Joint 16+, but there had been other efforts to make the system fairer and easier to understand. The most important of these efforts was the conversion of numeric grades 1-5 and U into the alphabetic grades already used in CSE.
The complexity of the political system, however, has meant that a number of LEAs resisted the change from selective to comprehensive education, and even today some Grammar schools continue to be part of the local State school system, for example in Kent and Lincolnshire. This meant that in certain areas, where Secondary Moderns became Comprehensive schools but the Grammar School system continued in parallel, the new Comprehensives were never teaching the full ability range as they failed to attract the brighter students. In the same way, the location of Comprehensive schools and the corresponding catchment area has meant that those schools judged by parents to be performing better have pushed up local house prices as parents have competed to buy property in the area that enables their children to qualify for places in the “better schools”. Because demand exceeds the number of places available, the property boom has provided as much a selective education as the old 11+ exam, and the more affluent rather than the more academically gifted, are the winners. This is further compounded by the rise in private tuition.
A number of revisions of the GCSE were present from the beginning. Recognising that the O level awarded only a limited number of A grades, the GCSE set out to remove the old O Level cap, so that any students achieving an excellent result in any subject would see this fully reflected in their final Grade. By 2007, the A*-C pass rate had increased to 63.3% with 1/5 students achieving a High Grade A. At the same time, it was clear that more students were opting for “easier” subjects and avoiding the difficult core subjects like History and Modern Languages. At the opposite end of the Academic spectrum was the introduction of lower-tier papers which cannot be awarded any Grade higher than a C, effective selection within the GCSE exam.
In 1994, Vocational courses were developed by the Government with the introduction of GNVQs, and many of these were merged in 2002 into the full GCSE system. This seems to be in line with the original intentions of Keith Joseph who planned in 1984 a comprehensive vision to measure the standard of all Secondary school pupils; he imagined that the academic part of the GCSE, effectively the old O level, would merit Grades A-C and the lower grades, allowing for two-tier papers, would be modelled on the old CSE with its element of practical training. The original plans did not consider Grades D-G to be fails in the traditional O level sense. Many of the vocational subjects have proved popular particularly with children from poorer families.
At the heart of the GCSE is the desire to produce a single simple way to measure the success of all students in the UK. In 2004, Mike Tomlinson proposed a radical change in this spirit that would unite all educational results at four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced. His proposal was rejected by the Government which revised the GCSE, instead “to build on the strengths of the existing education system”. Ian Abbott, in “Education Policy” judges the rejection of the Tomlinson Report to be “a political act because the government did not want to enter the 2005 election faced with the claim… they were going to abolish GCSE examinations”. The fact that the Government did not grasp this nettle only put off the inevitable. Both the Blair/Brown Government and the current Coalition embraced league tables as a way to monitor the health of schools and focused press attention on a system that was recognized to be in need of repair.
Plans today to change the GCSE, however, include the abolition of the two-tier paper system. Mark Dawe, the chief examiner of the Oxford and Cambridge board and RSA was interviewed just after the summer exams in 2012. He told the Independent, “We’re doing our students a disservice if they feel that’s going to allow them to progress further.” He pointed out that employers were “wise” to the results and only recognized Grades A-C when they were reading CVs, leaving many students with Grades of questionable value. Instead, he proposed a stop-gap exam that might be used by less-able students in the run-up to taking the GCSE or its equivalent. He anticipated that such an examination would not be linked to a specific age, allowing students the chance to mature academically at their own pace. Indeed, over the period of the GCSE, programmes have been designed to help less able students deal with the academic demands of the exams. The most successful is “Study Plus”; linked to the National curriculum, and timetabled during the normal school day, it is a guided programme that specifically focuses on literacy and numeracy, accelerating the progress of students “so that they have a better chance of achieving C Grades at GCSE.”
On the same day that Mark Dawe criticized the two-tier format, the Daily Telegraph reported that a committee headed by Sir Michael Barber, an educational advisor to Tony Blair, was looking to Hong Kong’s version of the IGCSE to plan a better qualification in English, Science and Maths. “The gold standard,” he said, “is not what happened in the 1950s in England. It is what is happening in Singapore and Hong Kong and Ontario and Alberta now. The gold standard is being set by the best education operating in the 21st century.”
At the heart of the concern is that the breadth of GCSE is its own problem. Less able students see their results dismissed or questioned while more academically able students do not feel fully stretched. At the same time, the possibility of retaking modules tampers with the credibility of a reliable academic snapshot. In other words, if some of the modules were taken in 2010 and others in 2011 and 2012, it is argued that it is not at all clear what the overall Grade measures except for persistence. The absolute standard which GCSE Grades were intended to show (in contrast to the percentage quota of the O level Grade) is cheapened by resits. The public see a rising rate of successful results which teachers might argue reflects better teaching methods, but, speared on by the media, the public suspects the exams are simply getting easier.
There are other ways to deal with public and educational anxiety about the standards of the GCSE. Independent schools particularly have adopted a number of alternative courses, most particularly the more challenging IGCSE, (and denied for use in State schools until recently by the previous Labour administration) and the MYP. The Middle Years’ Programme is a junior version of the International Baccalaureate combining a core of 8 subjects, interdisciplinary tasks and a personal project. The resources and training needed do not immediately commend this to the wider State school system.
Because the older O level exams mostly lacked a coursework element (though this was not always the case), it was possible for mature students to sit an O level exam independently. This is very difficult to do under current GCSE guidelines and when students are no longer in full-time education. There are, however, some Open University modules available to older students as well as “equivalence tests” in Maths, English and Science which allow students to progress to Undergraduate studies even if they lack formal GCSE qualifications. These tests do not always count as formal independent qualifications outside the University where they are administered. A good example is the University of Brighton. UK NARIC provides help in assessing the merit of overseas’ qualifications and their comparison to existing GCSE qualifications. Less successful alternatives to the GCSE include some vocational tests like the OCR National level 2 in ICT which Ofsted has dismissed as a course of “doubtful value” despite being one of the more popular courses in English schools.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced plans in the Mail on Sunday in September 2012. Focusing on the perception that the GCSE had become too easy, his key features included the abolition of coursework in favour of “a traditional ‘all or nothing’ 3-hour exam at the end of the 2-year course”, the abolition of partial resits and more rigorous focus on core subjects. In terms of organization, each exam will be organized by a single board to counter current claims that one particular subject is easier with one board rather than another.
The English Baccalaureate or Ebacc would follow moves by schools towards teaching the more demanding IGCSEs, which retained elements of the older O level approach, and would be introduced for examination in 2018. “It was designed to encourage students to study academic subjects up to the age of 16.” Abbott records that the EBacc was designed to prevent some schools focused on their performance in league tables from “manipulating the curriculum through the introduction of vocational programmes to improve their results…” Indeed, a report by Alison Wolf in 2010 highlighted the move towards proper Vocational qualifications as well as the low levels of achievement in Maths and English GCSE. The report says, “in recent years, both academic and vocational education in England have been bedeviled by well-meaning attempts to pretend that everything is worth the same as everything else. Students and families all know this is nonsense.” (DfE, 2011:8). This statement strikes at the heart of the GCSE, an examination programme that covers the broad sweep of Secondary school education from the Academic to the Vocational.
While the shortcomings of GCSEs are acknowledged in the creation of the EBacc, concerns are already being expressed that students who fail to score highly in the Ebaccs will be judged failures in both school and in the workplace and that those taking GCSEs in the next two or three years will equally be seen to be taking worthless exams. If the current Coalition Government is not re-elected in 2015, however, there is a possibility that a Labour Government will not follow the Ebacc plan though it is certainly likely that some modification of GCSE will still take place.
It seems inevitable that the current format of GCSEs will change. The number of subjects looks set to be reduced and to be examined more rigorously, by a single written examination rather than continued assessment. An exception to this is the interest in MYP, which focuses on internal rather than external assessment. Whether the GCSE should change depends less on its original remit to be a single (comprehensive) exam to monitor secondary school achievement, and more on whether it meets the demands of the day. Today, from employers, politicians and the press, there seems to be a call for change.
- James McVittie, (2008) Scottish Qualifications Authority research report 3 Edinburgh
- Ministry of Education report (1963a). xiii from Ministry of Education (1963a) Half Our Future, Report of the General Advisory Council for Education (England) CMND 2165 (The Newsome Report) London HMSO
- Crowther Committee report, (1959) 15-18, London HMSO
- Ian Abbott, Michael Rathbone, Phil Whitehead (eds) (2013)Educational Policy, Sage Publications London
- The BBC:
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19911541 accessed 10 01 13
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19355956 accessed 10 01 13
- The Daily Mail:
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2203826/Michael-Gove-New-rigorous-exams-abolish-GCSEs.html#ixzz2Hb3PjA71 accessed 10 01 13
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-399671/Private-schools-dump-GCSEs-favour-old-style-O-Levels.html accessed 8 01 13
- The Telegraph:
- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/9472336/Exam-boards-set-out-GCSE-shake-up-plans.html accessed 10 01 13
- The Guardian
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/17/gcse-ebacc-michael-gove accessed 09 01 13
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/18/exam-define-failure-not-success letters accessed 09 01 13
- Study plus:
- http://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/secondary/math/download/file/PDF/What%20is%20Study%20Plus.pdf accessed 6 01 13
- Times Educational supplement:
- On the sykes review and the “doubtful value of OCR National level 2”
- On study skills
-  http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/18/exam-define-failure-not-success
-  apart from private tutors, there is a rise in formal extra tution programmes, for example, the kumon maths programme (http://www.kumon.co.uk) which arranges after-school sessions, and the ics learning programme which offers distance-learning GCSE tuition, http://www.icslearn.co.uk
-  The O level was initially Graded from 1-5 (and U) and in 1973 steps were taken to use letters A-E and U and bring it in line with the CSE grading system.
-  “The rise of biology, physics, and chemistry is welcome news as is the increased performance in Maths and English. However, the continuing decline of Modern Foreign Languages and the growing divide in performance between boys and girls at the top grades are worrying trends.”Dr Jim Sinclair, Director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, commenting on GCSE results – August 2011
-  P 161 an Abbott, Michael Rathbone, Phil Whitehead (eds) (2013)Educational Policy, Sage Publications London
-  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/9472336/Exam-boards-set-out-GCSE-shake-up-plans.html accessed 10 01 13
-  called “study skills” http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6261879
-  ibid: “Some leavers won’t be able to achieve it at 16 and it is therefore appropriate it could go on to 17 or 18 for them,” Mr Dawe said.
- http://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/secondary/math/download/file/PDF/What%20is%20Study%20Plus.pdf accessed 6 01 13
-  The Headmaster of Wellington College, a major Independent school near Reading, offered students MYP claiming that GCSEs “had become “too formulaic” and boring and that he was losing faith in the system to promote stimulating lessons” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/3779491/Wellington-College-to-poll-parents-on-plan-to-drop-GCSEs-in-favour-of-Baccalaureate.html
-  a two-hour english exam for instance is “based on the current AQA higher level English Language GCSE syllabus.”
-  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2203826/Michael-Gove-New-rigorous-exams-abolish-GCSEs.html#ixzz2Hb3PjA71
-  itemised points include a revival of algebra, English to foreign language translation, longer writing in English literature exams in contrast to current bite-size responses. Students should expect 3 hour exams rather than 90 minute exams.
-  Through the English Baccalaureate, we want to make sure all pupils have the chance to study the core academic subjects which universities and employers demand.” Schools minister Nick Gibb commenting on GCSE results – August 2011
-  P 183 an Abbott, Michael Rathbone, Phil Whitehead (eds) (2013)Educational Policy, Sage Publications London
-  Wolf report quoted by Educational Policy p. 187 Ian Abbott, Michael Rathbone, Phil Whitehead (eds) (2013)Educational Policy, Sage Publications London
-  a comparison between O levels and GCSE questions is contained in a guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/jun/21/have-gcses-got-easier. The article ends with an important caveat: “We should be cautious about comparing the two because while O-levels were sat by the top 25% of students (and many failed), GCSEs are designed for the vast majority.”