Have GCSEs had their day? (Hint-the answer is yes!)
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
The pandemic of 2020 meant that an alternative to GCSEs had to be found. Young people survived and were none the worse. Maybe this is the best time to stop, think and find an alternative to these outmoded assessments.
Sitting examinations at 16 is tough. Whilst most other parts of the life of the 16 year old are in state of flux or confusion, British society determines that this is the best time to decide how clever you are.
Impulsive, moody, lacking good judgment, anxious and at times downright dangerous, teenagers can often be hard to handle. Research abounds about the issues associated with the risk-taking, teenage brain and even if we don't read the research anyone the other side of 17 will know at least some of the problems by cast back their minds to their behavior and that of their friends. Normally these will settle down as we get older but at 16 we tend to be in the thick of all sorts of changes.
Some of this is biological. Cognitive processes including planning and reasoning become the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex as we leave our teens but they can still be the business of our more primitive subcortical and limbic structures. In essence as teenagers we are just not able to see ourselves objectively and in the way others see us. We cannot always think abstractly outside of ourselves and we are not always aware of the consequence of our actions. So why choose this time to do do potentially life changing exams?
"GCSEs are no longer the great academic "sorting hat" they were when they replaced O levels in the 1980s."
From 14 to 16 pupils across the UK all children sit the same or similar exams on the same days and then they wait until the end of August for the results. Over the years the grading have changed many times and will probably change again. There will be comments on standards, on how many top grades there should be, on whether they are easier or harder; experts will give opinions about what it all means for industry, for Britain, for schools but every year one question will remain unanswered. What is the purpose of GCSEs?
Sixteen isn’t a time in life where society decided to make big decisions about any other aspect of a relatively young life but we make it the first big sort-out of academic ability. Not everyone is ready to do them and many do very badly even if they would have shone a few years later. Times have changed but this old fashioned weigh-station has not. Now all 16 year olds stay in school or some other form of education for another two years after these tests. We no longer need this the great academic "sorting hat" that replaced O Levels in the 1980s.
When we learn to drive we do an exam. One exam when were are ready to be classed as able (or not able) to drive. If we fail it we can do it again. We don't do one driving test when we have done some of the lessons, then another one later on. If we are to drop a subject at 16 then an exam is a must. However if a pupil is to study subjects at A Level or Scottish Higher they still have to do exams at 16, then exams again in the same subjects about 20 months later. It seems wrong. We should do exams like we do other important tests-when we have finished studying the subject and are moving on.
With change forced upon us in the pandemic maybe the education system should move on too with more learning and less testing.
Peter Hogan has been the Head of schools in the UK and Asia for 20 years. He writes about schools, teaching and learning at hogan.education and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org