Debate about public exams inevitably follows publication of A level and GCSE results. But the past year has raised even more questions about how we test young people. Absolutely Education gets perspectives from experts on the education front line

Summer means that perennial topic raises its head again – public exams. Parents and teachers everywhere are forced to consider, sometimes wearily, the debate over how we’re testing, why we’re testing and whether the results current exams produce are worth the paper they’re written on.

The past year has thrown up even more issues – and a much broader debate – since Covid stopped normal assessment processes at 16 and 18.  We asked three school insiders to give their perspectives on the current public examinations landscape.

Are exams fit for purpose?
Jesse Elzinga, Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, says the UK system is fit for purpose

Jesse Elzinga, Headmaster, Sevenoaks School

Sevenoaks School adopted the IB Diploma over 40 years ago, going exclusively IB post 16 some 15 years ago

“My view is that qualifications are fit for purpose in the UK. The chaos of the public exam debacle of 2020 brought into sharp relief the difficulty of trying to find a fair way of awarding grades in the absence of externally marked assessment, be that examination or coursework. The arrangements for 2021 remain very complicated and difficult, putting even more pressure on schools. 

My overarching view is that external awarding bodies serve a valid purpose; they offer high-quality qualifications that are marked anonymously and objectively, and are not subject to parental pressure or teacher assessment. It is true that there are, from time to time, inconsistencies in the marking of public exams in this country. However, exam boards do have the hierarchy of markers with senior examiners checking work and overseeing appeals, and I think mechanisms for reviewing marking are effective overall. In the vast majority of cases, I know that most schools think a fair grade was awarded.

One of the biggest challenges for GCSE, A Level, BTEC and other qualifications overseen by the UK Government is that these qualifications are too often tampered, particularly when there is a change of Government or a new Secretary of State for Education who wants to make their own mark. Michael Gove’s reforms, in his time as Secretary of State for Education, were far too radical and ambitious, and left the sector reeling for several years with further amendments since. Ideally, the Department of Education would be a separate branch of Government that is apolitical, where the people in charge are specialists in education rather than Government ministers who, by definition, have a limited tenure. Changes are too often motivated by politics or pressure from the press, rather than what is good for education.

“The change that does need to happen is that GSCE, A-Level and BTEC should become separate from Government interference”

The significant advantage of the IB Diploma Programme is that it is run by a non-profit external body, the IBO, and is not subject to the whims of Government. On the contrary, it is taught in more than 150 countries and has changed very little since it was first established more than 50 years ago. Of course, during the pandemic and in the absence of exams, the IBO has also had to think quickly about how to award qualifications and have had their own challenges.

The qualifications of GSCE, A Level and IB that are offered across the UK are all very well respected by universities and employers. They offer a fair benchmark at these age points and are passports for the next stage of education. We have learned in the pandemic of the difficulty of awarding fair grades in a transparent process, without public exams, and for many people in education a return to normality in the next academic year will be a great relief. I do not think it is the time to throw out any qualifications. The change that does need to happen is that GSCE, A-Level and BTEC should become separate from Government interference in the same way the IB Diploma is.”

Sydenham G D S T ( Conflicted Copy From D E S K T O P G O B D On ) Copy
Students at Sydenham High School, a GDST school

Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation & Learning, GDST

Dr Kevin Stannard of the Girls’ Day School Trust previously worked with Cambridge University’s international exams board, leading the launch of the Cambridge Pre-U

“The debate about A levels and its alternatives is fundamentally different from that about GCSEs. It makes sense to have some sort of school leaving qualification, externally verified, that signals a young person’s readiness to progress to the next stage. The problem with A level is that it is being made to serve two very different – even conflicting – functions: as a general school-leaving certificate for most young  people; and as a sorting mechanism for entry to selective universities. Maybe these should be separated, with the sorting (and the attendant need for slicing and dicing in terms of grades) left to the universities themselves.

“The move to post-qualification university application should be a priority, for the sake of fairness and fitness for purpose”

One anomaly of A level is its timing – with results coming after university application and hence the need to issue conditional offers. The move to post-qualification university application should be a priority, for the sake of fairness and fitness for purpose. Another anomaly (compared with other countries) is A level’s reductiveness – forcing most students to narrow down to three subjects at an unusually early age.

This connects it with the problem with GCSE: without the need to jettison subjects at sixteen, there would be no need for high-stakes exams in those subjects at that point. GCSE exists because many students once left school at sixteen, and so there was a need for leaving qualifications at that point. The school leaving age is now higher, and this battery of high-stakes tests remains as a relic of past times. Not only does it not serve a useful purpose, it actually forces education out of shape. Time that could be spent teaching is taken up with testing; teaching itself is focused on test-prep rather than expansive exploration; and the vast amount spent on administering the exam system divert funds from resourcing schools properly.

The cancellation of exams last year, revealed the GCSE system as resembling the emperor’s clothes: GCSEs were awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgements, rather than the heavy hand of public examinations, and it arguably made next to no difference to students’ trajectories.”

Q E A R E E Xams Fit Copy
A pupil at QE, which offers both A level and BTEC pathways post 16

Dan Machin, Acting Principal Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate

Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate offers its students both A level and BTEC examination options

“A Level remains one of the world’s leading qualifications for pre-university study. Nationally and internationally, they are recognised by universities and employers as a high-quality, reliable opportunity for students to show what they are capable of achieving; and they are seen as excellent preparation for further study in a wide range of educational systems. As they are administered and assessed independently by examination boards, the results continue to retain a high level of integrity.

In my view, BTECs also provide outstanding preparation for university, as well as for future employment. Key to their success is their ability to offer an academically rigorous alternative to A Levels at the same time as developing practical, real-world vocational skills. Not all students are able to demonstrate their abilities and strengths through end-of-course examinations alone.

“The advantage of the UK system is that it provides for both breadth and specialism, and also for students to change their pathway”

GCSEs provide structure and focus for students who otherwise would be very inexperienced in the demands of public examinations. They allow students to demonstrate ability across a wide range of subjects and at different levels, and the recent move to introduce Grades 7-9 allows for greater differentiation of ability for students at the highest academic level. Where GCSEs perhaps would benefit from future review is in the range of options available in English, mathematics, and the sciences, to broaden choice.

The advantage of the UK system is that it provides for both breadth and specialism, and also for students to change their pathway. For those students who want to achieve at the highest level, the ability to specialise early in areas of interest or strength is of great advantage to them in today’s globally competitive university and jobs markets. For other students, the flexibility of the UK education system allows for experimentation, choice and wide-ranging skills development.”

  • Queen Ethelburgha’s Collegiate qe.org

Further reading: Is it time to abolish GCSEs?