Is it time to abolish GCSEs? No, says Samantha Price, Headmistress of Benenden School

I can understand why some commentators are advocating the abolition of GCSEs – but I feel their focus is misplaced.

I support the ongoing reforms: the overriding effort to further raise standards is a laudable one. Inevitably, the transition has not been seamless and another disruption to the exam system at the moment is the last thing young people and teachers need.

In our apparent rush to address a perceived weakness with the current system, we should be careful not to overlook its strengths. Most significantly, compulsory GCSEs at 16 ensure all children receive a broad curriculum that sets them up for life. Doing away with GCSEs could mean thousands of young people leaving school without qualifications, which would be a deeply retrograde step unless there was a viable alternative. A large number of students change school at 16, and to proceed without any qualifications would not be helpful for the next establishment they enter, whether this is a school, a Sixth Form college or a further education college.

Don’t get me wrong: I thoroughly embrace the principle of making education more relevant to the modern workplace and I agree that the role of schools is to prepare young people for jobs that don’t exist yet. However, we don’t need another change to the exam system in order to achieve this.

We must recognise that it is possible to design a creative and challenging programme for young people around the current exams. This can be achieved by schools connecting content across subjects and linking it to overarching concepts, engaging questions and real life problems, as we are currently doing at Benenden. This needs to be supported by a rigorous  enrichment programme which is explicitly delivered in a way that nurtures soft skills.

We are currently looking at precisely these issues as we seek to expand our Benenden Diploma, our highly successful curriculum for pupils in Year 7 and 8. In most senior schools, pupils of this age will have many unrelated lessons across a week, where the content within each subject is not linked to other subjects. In contrast, our Diploma has been designed to enable pupils to make exciting and innovative links between subjects through a series of enquiry projects and themes. This is a way of learning that better reflects life and the workplace: after all, in our adult days we do not have one hour of Maths followed by one hour of Languages and so on.

We are now working hard to expand this connective approach to learning into the GCSE years. In addition, all our Sixth Formers complete a rigorous Professional Skills Programme, a course dedicated to teaching the general skills they need to thrive in the workplace. The course has been developed in collaboration with senior figures in business and was launched partly in response to comments from the industry that university graduates were not fully prepared for the workplace. As a country, the challenge is to ensure appropriate vocational routes have equal respect from employers and higher education providers so that the large percentage of 16-year-olds for whom the new GCSEs are still inappropriate or too difficult have something worthwhile to show for their time in school. Credible vocational routes are as important at GCSE as they are later. We all need to work towards this together.

This should be the focus, rather than once again unsettling young people with talk of further tinkering with exams which have only recently been reformed.  

Visit the Benenden School website here

Is it time to abolish GCSEs? Yes, says Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales School

GCSEs have passed their sell-by-date. They stifle creative teaching, and because everyone now has to stay in full-time education, or follow an apprenticeship or training until 18, there is little point to an exam which was introduced at a time when pupils could leave school at 16 ‘qualified’, and get a job. 

In 2016 former Education Secretary, Lord Baker decried the squeezing out of creative and technical subjects in our schools, and alongside the usual curricular suspects, argued that young people should study a technical subject such as design and technology or a BTEC, and a creative option such as a GCSE in art or drama. Only in this way, he argued, can young people be prepared for the 21st century labour market, and I could not agree more.

The orthodoxy of deeming some educational subjects worthy (STEM, English etc) and others less so is suspect. The educationalist Bill Lucas has written that a focus on STEM subjects at school is not sufficient for would-be-engineers. Rather, the world-class civil engineering department at UCL has shown that undergraduates do not need maths or science at A-Level in order to excel. Lucas suggests that other subjects matter too in helping to facilitate the necessary habits of mind. It is encouraging that many of the ‘new’ universities offer imaginative programmes in emerging creative and technological fields, and are similarly broad-minded in their entry requirements. The problem is that secondary level education has failed to keep pace with the vision and ambition of universities such as these. 

For a reminder of what education might look like in our schools and colleges, we need look no further than the 2004 Tomlinson Report. It recommended replacing GCSEs and A-Levels with a diploma covering both academic and vocational pathways, allowing for their combination. Crucially, the authors favoured diverse assessment methodologies. I suspect that the authors might like what we are doing at Bedales, first, through the introduction of BACs (Bedales Assessed Courses) as an alternative to GCSEs, and now with the introduction of the Enrichment Programme for Sixth Formers.

We launched BACs in 2006 as an outward-looking alternative to some non-core GCSEs. BACs encourage collaboration, and the significant decision-making power they grant to students results in good learning. Bedales is the first school to be recognised by UCAS as offering its own GCSE-replacement qualification.

The demise of the AS-Level freed up time that we have used to develop a programme of teacher-designed diploma courses. The Bedales Enrichment Programme is designed to both complement and offer contrast to traditional A-Level choices. The subjects are diverse – science students might want to act or draw; alternatively they may want to deepen their major disciplinary interest through an extended project. Whatever they choose to do, they work no less hard than on their A-Levels, are subjected to no less rigour and experience a much wider range of assessment methods. They leave Bedales well-positioned to meet the changing priorities and requirements of today’s higher education and work environments, and I would like to see the same for all of our young people.  

Visit the Bedales School website here