Imagine there’s no GCSEs… It’s easy if you try

John White

This month’s OECD report has linked the poor literacy and numeracy skills of our 16-24 olds, compared with those in other countries, with a lower level of social mobility. One factor in holding back social mobility has been the way in which the more affluent have used school examinations to entrench their dominance in higher education and in professional jobs.

A way of countering this dominance would be to remove its instruments: school exams themselves. These may have made sense when they first became popular around the 1850s, but do they in 2013?

They made sense then for the rising middle classes who wanted their sons to have interesting careers. Before that, patronage had been the norm. Exams were held to provide a fairer and more objective alternative.

Are they worth retaining now? Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training in question-spotting, examiner-bluffing and other morally dubious habits.

What do schools get out of examinations? Universities and employers are the beneficiaries. Schools are their handmaidens, relieving them of work and expense. Apart from kudos for some in the league tables, schools get mainly grief.

Imagine a world without GCSEs and A levels. How much broader and richer education could become! The school could come back to its proper task of creating in every school leaver a passion for learning – rather than hacked-off attitudes among its exam failures and instrumental attitudes to learning among its successes.

Would anything be lost in an exam-free régime? What about selecting candidates for higher or further education and employment?  We need to probe imaginative alternatives. Colleges and employers should take the lead on devising their own filtering devices, as long as these do not disadvantage less privileged applicants. But schools can also play a part.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of records of achievement, or student profiles. These enabled schools to provide ongoing accounts of progress in different areas. They were not tied to the framework of discrete subjects within which examinations tend to be conducted. They recorded progress on non-academic fronts, including practical and out-of-class activities, within the school and outside.

In those days profiling existed alongside conventional examinations. It could now replace them. It could give every school leaver a record of his or her all-round attainments, presentable both to other educational establishments and to employers. Our new digital age has opened wider horizons, with children and parents as well as teachers contributing to web-based records, not only with text but also with still and moving images. This already happens in enlightened schools.

I know all this is anathema to those who will tell us what a subjective, corruption-prone system profiling is. Examinations are so much fairer, so much more accurate in their assessments. This is why colleges and employers trust them – and why they have for over a century provided a ladder for young people from all social classes to reach the top.

We should not accept this. Examining something is submitting it to thorough investigation. Do the minutes an examiner allots, say, to a paper on Europe since 1815 really add up to an examination? Digital cumulative records can give a much fuller picture; and of the student not only as a lone learner, but also as a co-worker – and not only in this area or that, but also as a whole person. And who is to say that there are no ways of coping with teacher bias – or, indeed, other problems around profiling?

The ladder argument raises another point. The more affluent have long accepted examinations as their route to university and professional jobs. They have been happy, at the same time, with some poorer but bright youngsters joining them. The ladder is said to provide equality of opportunity.

But the story says nothing about equipping everyone for a decent life. The ladder for the lucky ones, too, has always been propped up against a smart building with escalators inside to take the affluent up to the upper storeys. Michael Gove’s policy on examinations has upgraded the escalators and made the ladder more rickety.

Examinations are an excellent device for keeping a hierarchical social order more or less intact. If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
15 comments on “Imagine there’s no GCSEs… It’s easy if you try
  1. behrfacts says:

    In an ideal world we would at least get rid of GCSEs in England with everyone continuing in some form of education to age 18 (as will happen over the next few years). Records of achievement were consulted on by DfE recently and from memory I don’t think the response was very positive, probably because of general ‘tiredness’ of the teaching profession with high stakes coursework linked to C/D borderline accountability measures.

  2. Miss Honey says:

    The concept of credentialism as a social ill, like many of Illich’s ideas, is long overdue a revival. However, judging from recent statements, Mr Gove is unlikely to be leading it.

  3. What a very welcome outbreak of sanity in a very confused world. One critique of what you have set out here might point out that you have prescribed a change in the assessment process before deciding on the way a curriculum is constructed. Once we know what we would like to prescribe, encourage or permit among learners a suitable assessment or accreditation of learning can be designed. Attaching assessments to rites de passage at fixed ages is inefficient.

  4. John White says:

    Thanks, Sam. You’re right that we should start with what schools should be for rather than with assessment schemes. That is exactly where Michael Reiss and I began in our short book ‘An Aims-based Curriculum’ (IOE Press 2013, on open access at At present we have an exam-based curriculum (EBC) in secondary schools. This is, not surprisingly, also a subject-based curriculum (SBC). We need now to move to an ABC (simple as that!). I guess my Record of Achievement proposal implicitly took for granted this new approach to the curriculum. But, I agree, I could have put things better in the blog.

  5. John, I could not agree more with your suggestion that, “If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.”(than in the present examination system) I accept that you are commenting here on examinations at the upper end of the secondary phase, however, I would like to suggest that the love of learning that you speak of is first experienced in the home, and needs to be developed throughout the primary years. It is in these early years of formal education and by addressing issues around the redistribution of wealth where we may actually need to look if we want to tackle social injustice with any hope of success. You say, “Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they (examinations) are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test,” Unfortunately, it isn’t here in these last years at school that the problems begin. So, “If we want to create in every school leaver a passion for learning” it would be better to focus on this much earlier than in their last years in compulsory education to do so. Indeed, if this were to happen, discussions over assessment and measurement of individuals at the end of compulsory education, where many will argue it is more important that we conduct through examinations, might progress in a different climate.

    Without question, we are neglecting the most serious obstacle to the future life chances of our young people while at the same time failing to properly tackle social injustice. The obstacle I speak of is the enduring system by which whatever political party in power gets to determine every outcome in education from the scope and content of the curriculum to the methods by which pupils’ achievements are ‘weighed and measured’. The present system of national governance of education must not continue unchanged. The political interference in education policy (and more recently practice), which we have seen escalating over the last two decades, will continue with ever more drastic consequences if leadership is not forthcoming to engineer change to the system.

    • John White says:

      Dear John

      I agree with you solidly about creating a love of learning in the early years. I wasn’t arguing that replacing exams is the thing we should do.

      Btw, I don’t think we should neglect the backwash of secondary school exams and attitudes associated with them (eg seeing knowledge as all parcelable into easily examinable chunks; individual rather than collaborative activity, etc) on early learning – even at KS1 or before.

  6. 3arn0wl says:

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! It’s not the tests that are the problem. Indeed testing is _a_ very good way to demonstrate mastery. And I know that the phrase “Teaching to the test” has become a pejorative term, but again, as long as there’s a carefully thought through “Scope and Sequence” (sorry for the Americanism, but it is a useful alliterative term) there’s good progression.

    Where our current system seems unbelievably contorted is that we have unnatural benchmarks – end of Key Stage tests (including at 16). If assessment was undertaken when the student was well-prepared for it, then the education process would be more natural. Secondly, commonly only A* – C grades are recognised as a pass – in other words, the GCE straightjacket has been allowed to be fitted onto GCSEs, and direct and indirect financial incentives focus the school. If indeed only 4 grades are relevant, then more levels are required.

    I’m all for a broader and richer curriculum, and I think that there can be some “dead time” at Key Stage 3, and also some repetition. I’d like to see teachers collaborating to develop a substantive curriculum in their specialism, which, crucially, I’d like the exam boards to then be subject to, rather than them dictating their syllabi.

    Anyway, my arguments are well-rehearsed:

    • John White says:

      Some tests have a place, I agree, 3arnOwl – eg the driving test. But my target was not tests in general but the system of public examinations in the secondary school.

      Testing is a different concept from examining. In testing, you can perceive immediately that someone can do something (eg reverse and park). Examining is engaging in a thorough and systematic investigation of something (eg a medical examination). We think of our public examinations as thoroughly investigating what someone knows about some subject matter. Do they really do this?

      • 3arn0wl says:

        Perhaps a little semantic? Surely that’s merely a matter of degree? But anyway, there are other methods of assessment which are arguably more naturalistic than a test/examination.

  7. […] now for something completely different.  In his blog of last week Professor John White suggested that we scrap GCSEs entirely, now that everyone needs to be either in education or […]

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