Thank Goodness for the GCSE Overhaul

The GCSE system of examinations originally introduced in the late 1980s are finally going to be scrapped and be replaced by the English Baccalaureate in 2015 with the first students sitting the exams for the new system in 2017.

Maths tutoring by the beach

Tutoring Maths by a Scottish beach before Summer examinations.

I fully agree with the government’s move to do this. The number of ways you can sit a GCSE and earn a grade has become more and more complicated through the years as I blogged about last year. The result of having so many different examination boards and ways to get a GCSE within the same board has just led to “a race to the bottom” as Michael Gove put it. It was originally intended that this would be a race to the top as different privatised examination boards would compete to provide the best possible system.

But this never happened.

Back when the GCSEs were introduced there were far fewer students going to University, and the O Levels were harder than the GCSEs we see today. In the 1990s when I sat the GCSEs they didn’t have any modules, so there were just the one set of exams at the end of Year 11. However, in the last 5 years or so the introduction of modules has really complicated the picture even more. I am now tutoring students sitting exams in November, January and June. Some students are simply not ready to sit exams in November for instance. It is too early to put them under that pressure. Also, it is just way too much admin all year round to be constantly preparing students for exams.

So the benefits of this system will be

  • Everyone will finally be on a level playing field, all students will sit the exact same exam. There will be an option to sit an easier version of the paper though just like now where there is a foundation and higher level.
  • There will be far less admin on students, tutors and teachers
  • Students won’t have year round pressure to sit exams, the pressure will all be in the final Summer exams
  • With just one system the inflation of the GCSE standard itself can be monitored carefully

The “free market” idea of different examination boards has been a complete failure with the GCSEs. So back to the one system for all again. I think it was a good attempt to improve the system, and I believe in experimentation and finding out by doing things. Real life data suggests that it is time to go back to the old, proven system that worked well for many decades already.

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2 Responses to “Thank Goodness for the GCSE Overhaul”


  1. 1 John Collins September 21, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    This is an interesting and well explained analysis of the proposed changes. However, there are a few unintended consequences that I think need to be thought though (or perhaps better explained by DoE). For example, how will we assess arts, music and design technology courses? What should happen to students in Wales and Northern Ireland, who also currently sit GCSEs with students at English schools? And how can these changes align with future reforms to A Levels and the extension of the school leaving age? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. 2 Atul Rana September 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Hey John, thanks for the comment and glad you like the analysis. You have a good bunch of questions so I had a good think on this. Overall, the biggest and best change is to switch to one examination board. This makes it a level playing field more than any other change. While only Maths, English and the Sciences will first see this system in 2017, I think it’s ok if d&t, arts and music are still assessed in parts (in the sort of modular way they are being marked now) rather than a big exam at the end.

    The school leaving age will be raised and more students (currently a fifth drop out at the age of 16) will stay on at school. It’s unlikely the drop out cases will all do A Levels so more vocational courses might be the way. My only concern would be that the A Level standard itself should not be dropped and I would also like to see just one exam board for A Levels as well. As for English and Welsh students doing separate 15+ exams for while, that’s another spanner in the works but not too different to the Scottish students doing Scottish Nationals instead of A Levels. One other thing to add is that I really disagree with using different ability sets at schools. Putting someone in a lower set immediately puts them on a psychological backfoot and affects their self concept. I still find sets a strange concept because during my education in Kenya, Libya and India I never saw this.


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