Should GCSEs be scrapped?

Spoof GCSE paper from the Huffington Post
I was in the last school year to sit O-Levels in 1987 which is something I am often teased about by my wife who sat her GCSEs the following year in 1988. The old system that I sat my exams under had both O Levels and CSEs. In theory a CSE Grade 1 was equivalent to a Grade ‘C’ O level but it never really worked out like that with employers and others looking down their noses at CSEs.

So the new GCSEs combined both exams together although it remains the case that if you take so-called “foundation” pathways at GCSE the highest you can get is a “C”. But at least you actually get a C like everyone else.

O Levels and CSEs were part of the whole supposedly tripartate  school system that saw children sorted at 11 and sent to Grammar Schools, Secondary Modern and (much less frequently) technical schools. Of course the O Levels were for the grammar school students usually and fewer secondary modern children were even entered for them.

I think the GCSE has done a lot to end this kind of unfair discrimination in school and to give all children a fairer chance of success however I wonder if the time has now come to scrap GCSEs altogether.

A very interesting briefing paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) was published the day before the GCSEs were published and looked at proposals by the Government to end grade inflation, introduce a single exam board and go back to a two exam system (like the O Levels and CSEs) at sixteen. The paper made some interesting points about these issues but asked some more fundamental questions:
There is perhaps a third more fundamental question that we should be asking, and which certainly needs to be stated clearly before any reforms are introduced. And that is, what exactly are GCSEs for? England is actually rather unusual in having a high stakes school leaving exam at 16. Most countries focus on exams when most young people in fact leave school at 17 or 18. The system in England looks rather like a left over from a time when the majority of young people did expect to leave school at 16. Now that the vast majority stay on past 16 to do further qualifications there must be some question over the role of a set of exams which may signal to some that leaving at 16 is expected, particularly in the context of government policy to raise the "education participation age" to 18.  
So this is politely saying that Gove is barking up the wrong tree having pointed out his suggested reforms were unlikely to achieve the stated objectives. It also looked at the wider role played by GCSEs for example in school league tables:
GCSEs do perform other roles as well. They are often used to hold schools to account for their performance and are one of the only external measures of attainment universities can see when making offers of places. However, other measures of school success could be used in league tables (such as a core of subjects or post-16 results) and may well be more desirable if schools have been using the present system to boost their league table position. It would also be odd to justify retaining GCSEs on the basis they are used for university admissions. Currently, the majority of children don't go to university and other reforms could improve the flow of information to admissions tutors, such as entrance exams or running the application process after A-Level results have been published. England is also extremely unusual in allowing those who do stay on past 16 to drop study of maths and English, as was pointed out in the Wolf Review.
The IFS concluded:
Perhaps an even more radical rethink of the role of GCSEs and the structure of the public examination system is called for if we are to ensure that these exams serve a valid purpose and young people are best served for the future.
Today the TES reported that apparently universities are not so keen to get involved in setting A-Levels  as they fear they would “tarnish their brand” and if you look at how much the GCSEs have become a political football over the past few days I can see what they mean.

Assertions by the Head of Ofqal that they had been set up by parliament to be politically neutral seemed laughable yesterday as it became clear that exam boards had altered grade boundaries to try and meet government policies.

But rather than Michael Gove’s quant ideas to go back to some kind of a" golden era” of examinations I think what we actually need is a new set of examinations designed for the world we actually live in now. Quite what this would look like I do not know but if Michael Gove wants a way out of the corner he has painted himself into on exams he could do worse than set up an open and transparent process to design an examination system for the future
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