Terminal examinations are too blunt an instrument


A system wholly focused on end-of-course examinations will disadvantage many young people. Dr Hilary Emery looks at what young people have had to say about the GCSE reforms.

Late last year I shared my worry about government’s plans to replace GCSE exams with the English Baccalaureate. I was delighted that in January, the secretary of state announced that rather than introducing a new key stage 4 qualification, there would be an overhaul of GCSEs, the key change being the move to an end-of-course examination as the preferred form of assessment.

On one level this is good news but we need to think carefully about how we will ensure that children have an examination system that enables them to show what they know, understand and can do. The risk of end-of-course examinations is that some students are less likely to meet the assessment requirements.

The apparent rigour and reliability of an end-of-course exam is limited, primarily because a single method of assessment is not appropriate for assessing all aspects of knowledge or for assessing all students fairly.

There is certainly a need to re-establish the credibility of GCSEs with parents, employers and most of all with the young people who are currently studying hard to take these exams. Our Young NCB members have talked of GCSEs being devalued. The exam boards and Ofqual need to consider urgently how they address negative messages about the exams.

To make informed choices, young people and their families need excellent information, advice and guidance about the pathways and options that are available in key stage 4. They need to be sure that the qualifications on offer are credible, respected and will support progression in education and on into employment and training. 

Ultimately, they need to be confident that if they put in the work during the course and reach the standards expected, they will achieve the qualification – not be at risk of failure because the only chance they have to show what they have learnt is a one-off exam.

Young NCB members told us they want an assessment process which balances written and practical examinations with other opportunities, including coursework and extended assessment. This reflects what we know from research about the need to use a range of methods to demonstrate learning; final examinations alone are too blunt an instrument.

Furthermore, losing modular qualifications will impact on those who are already vulnerable because of SEN, disabilities, and long-term physical or mental health conditions. It will also affect those children with disrupted lives, including children in care, and young people in custody for whom getting credit towards a GCSE can be the first step to engaging with education.

Young NCB members were also concerned about the speed of the introduction of the changes. The government’s new approach needs to be carefully developed and piloted to ensure that it provides the confidence that everyone wants to see in our examinations and recognises the achievements of our young people. 

We believe government should invest in developing a full suite of pathways and assessments ensuring high-quality academic and vocational routes; and should consider how raising the participation age to 18 will impact on what public examinations are needed. To be effective, schools need support to provide good information and advice. In addition there needs to be thorough professional development and training on changes to assessment methods and associated teaching demands.

Investment in development is key to ensuring that a new system can be effectively and fairly rolled out nationally, with teachers understanding the implications of the changes, students confident that their achievements will be recognised, and parents, employers and the media seeing the qualifications as high-quality and credible.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk


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