School leaders call for GCSE reforms

Eighty six per cent of school and college leaders have called for GCSEs to be reformed or scrapped in a survey carried out by ASCL.
The survey of 799 school and college leaders in England revealed widespread dissatisfaction with GCSEs, which have been reformed since 2015 to make them deliberately harder with more content and exams. 

Most respondents said GCSEs do not work well for all students, and raised concerns that these qualifications are not accessible to a significant proportion of lower attaining students, including those with special educational needs.

They said that GCSEs left too many pupils demoralised, and increased anxiety and mental health problems.

The future of GCSEs

We asked whether GCSEs should be scrapped and assessment reviewed at 16; retained but reformed; or retained in their current form. These were the results:
Scrapped and assessment at 16 reviewed 39.55% 316
Retained but reformed 46.93% 375
Retained in their current form 13.52% 108
TOTAL   799

Rachael Warwick, President of the Association of School and College Leaders, will tell 1,000 delegates at the association’s annual conference in Birmingham today (Friday 13 March): 

Is it really too much to ask that the government looks again at GCSEs? That it recognises that the reforms it introduced to deliberately make GCSEs harder have resulted in life becoming even more difficult for the very children who most need our support? Surely, the fact that this is being said by school leaders – the people who deliver these qualifications – should be listened to.

The pressure of a large number of terminal exams and the ignominy of Grades 1-3 are creating young people who exhibit unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety

Add to this the pernicious potential of social media to attack self-esteem and perpetuate bullying, and the fact that nearly a third of the country’s children grow up in grinding, relentless poverty, and we have a perfect storm.

Those calling for GCSEs to be scrapped felt that it was time to review assessment at 16 in an era when young people are expected to remain in education or training until 18 and that a lighter-touch system of assessment was needed to facilitate onward progression. 

Those favouring reform suggested changes such as reducing the amount of exams, the volume of content in courses, and the emphasis on having to recall large amounts of information. 

A common theme among many respondents was the need for a broader range of alternative qualifications to GCSEs, in particular vocational qualifications.

Comments from school leaders included:
  • Because GCSES are now so content-laden and deliberately harder, they disenfranchise many students for whom these exams are just too daunting. This is leading to greater anxiety and mental health problems for these students.” 
  • They are not accessible for many learners and this leads to a lack of engagement and limits their opportunities for future progression routes as they are not able to achieve and be successful. It can also lead to a detrimental impact on a young person's motivation and mental health as they view themselves as a failure.”
  • Basically any child who doesn't get a grade 4 gains no benefit, and in the case of English and maths it can actually be a lifelong disadvantage.” 
The full results of the survey can be accessed here.