Scrap GCSEs/A-Levels and start again

GCSEs are the main entry and foundation set of tests for the next steps in a student's career. Whether they plan to undertake an immediate apprenticeship, A-Levels to then go on to work or attend university, they are a stepping stone, however, are they still fit for purpose?

The History

With schools mainly functioning as private institutions until 1870, Government introduced legislation giving councils the ability to part-fund/ run schools. This led to the idea of mandatory, free education for 5 to 13-year-olds.

 1918 saw the first "examination" as we would know today. The School Certificate (SC) was for up to the age of 16 and those who stayed till 18 were awarded the higher equivalent. Based on credits across varying subjects with a pass needed in 6 (including English and Maths).

1951 introduced the replacement to the SC via CSEs and O-Levels with A-Levels being the further progression. CSEs were based on a number system and O-Levels on a letter.

1988 saw the replacement of CSEs and O-Levels into the GCSE. A-Levels were not replaced. The aim was to allow a broader range of study in a more rigorous way. It borrowed the letter naming scheme of A-Levels and O-Levels. Tweaks to the GCSE were adding of the A* in 1994 and reduction/tightening of rules around coursework in the 2000s.

Under the 2010 Coalition, then education secretary Micheal Gove moved to remove coursework in most subjects, moved back to a number based system as seen in CSEs, reworked the curriculum with a focus on longer style essay questions, making AS Levels not part of the main A-Level system, linearisation of courses (removal of the modular system) and many other major changes.

The New System

A new focus

Reforming the GCSE system meant re-writing the aims and drive of each subject. English Literature introduced a focus on older texts and a more British Theme.
Sourced from the DFE

Mathematics was reformed with the aim of providing a better foundation for students to step up and pursue a mathematics-based career. This was in line with extra funding schools can receive for encouraging students to take STEM subjects

9-1 Grading

A* to U was replaced with a 9-1 system (emulative of the old 1-5 system for CSEs) as a way to differentiate it from the previous GCSE system. The equivalence is not a straight comparison. The official equivalence made the lower grades equivalent to more grades (3-1 being the same as D - G), stretched the higher boundaries and offered a form of A**.

The Problems

A* to U being transformed to 9-1

As a method to distinguish the two exam systems, to ensure old students of the former systems are not disadvantaged by the introduction of an extra grade (either an A** or a C* - as is currently the case in Northern Ireland), to allow employers some comparison across the previous generation of tests and as a method to sum up general understanding in a single number; it stands up as a good system. However, the problem lies in its use as a general summation of understanding.

A more modular approach with in-depth scoring for each sub-topic would give a better to understand the strengths and weakness of where a potential employee/student lies.


With the chance to reform, a system similar to the formerly modularised system of the A-Levels could have been introduced. Students should have been scored on a similar A-E or 1-5 system as O-Levels or CSEs but in specific units such as data handling, statistical analysis and algebra. Trying to convey meaningful information about many different types of information that are very different in one number is not useful in the long run so why should GCSE grades be treated the same? A modular break-down could allow people to specialize earlier and allow students to tackle "harder" modules.

The idea of modularisation could be taken further. Collapsing A-Levels and GCSEs into a single exam type that could be picked up at any point during the 4-year school career currently of GCSE to A-Level. All who wanted to sit a subject would have to sit a mandatory base test and then could progress in any fashion. The Former - and to some extent - the current A-Level Further Mathematics system offers foundation units, such as Mechanics 1 with further modules (Mechanics 2) if students want to go further, but this is not usually a decision Students get to make as the teachers have to plan and decide with fairly small class sizes. How to tackle this is something I cannot answer.

When Exams are taken

Why are exams taken ONLY at the end of the year? Why are they not placed regularly throughout the calendar? The current set up of a single block of exams means preparation all year and the final weight being put on the result. Spread exams over the year, with re-takes only happening the next year for the same unit. The A-Level Mechanics Exam could have happened in the second quarter of Year 12 for A-Level students. GCSE students could sit a specific set of topics in a similar fashion.

A downside for this is that it removes the property of the current exam system that boards use to their advantage. There is too much content to put in all exams, so they have to pick and choose. Students have to be versed well on all content and be prepared to tackle any topic that may or may not come up. Making exams where the choice of topics is smaller could mean that less is asked, and hence there is still the "turn up an see what is asked" mentality, but then there comes a point where there is too little content to exam to have this.

Content Reform

With a focus on preparing a future generation for a more technical vocation study, Mathematics and STEM subjects could have gone further with pulling content from the old A-Levels before reform. This would have given even more stretch to the top bands, however, could give the chance for further progression elsewhere.

If this was paired with a modular system, some units could be core and mandatory to preserve a basis across all students and then unit exams are held for a wider variety of subtopics. This could allow more focused mathematics.

If not paired with the idea of modularisation, then at least the exam could be said to be more challenging and offer a better foundation for students who want to go into more technical apprenticeships/ jobs straight after GCSEs.

Why do any of this?

Why exam in the first place? The skills testing encourages have no applicable use in the working environment. As much as exam boards want us to show that they can ask questions that test problem-solving skills, lateral thinking and other demands of a workplace, a test will always prescribe a specific way of thinking and is not conducive to encouraging a certain way of working.

There does need to be some standard for people to be measured against, however, a wider and more dramatic approach would be needed. How do you measure people without testing? That is a question that I cannot answer currently, but maybe someone else might be able to.

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