How GCSEs must change after Covid-19

Written by: Chloe Testa | Published:
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The GCSE examination system has been plunged into chaos. When the pandemic is under control, we cannot simply return to the status quo. Chloe Testa proposes a new approach

If you had told me in January that the rigid backbone of the English schooling system, the dreaded overlord known as GCSE, would be cancelled within a matter of weeks, I would have laughed in your face.

Surely nothing could ever stop the tsunami of public examinations, a force that has been in motion since 1951? And especially not with the exams themselves a mere two months away?

But one minute we were planning interventions and Easter catch-up sessions, and the next the proverbial rug had been ripped out from underneath us.

The pandemic threw the entire world into new and completely uncharted territory. We have been left to scramble around in the dark, pull grades from proverbial hats and assign what we thought students would have gotten if they did sit the exams without any of this happening.

This reveals one of the glaringly obvious issues with the current exam system – if it all boils down to how the students perform on one day in one exam, then should anything derail that day, the entire system collapses for that student.

While we could not have predicted the large-scale devastation, we have seen in 2020, what we can do is learn from it and improve our exam system going forward.

We know the stress that exams put students under – they are a mental and emotional burden that have only increased in terms of pressure since they have become terminal and more “rigorous”. And if a “forgotten third”, to quote Geoff Barton, of students are “failing” these exams, surely there is something not quite working (SecEd, 2019).

So, what could we do instead? Some commentators have spoken about the potential for scrapping GCSEs – when you consider that we now have a system that educates until 18, are these examinations now nothing more than glorified end of key stage tests?

For me, spreading out the work would have the biggest benefit to our students. Rather than having a final exam at the end of their two years of study, implementing a modular system similar to university courses, whereby students complete components of a subject throughout the two years would help spread the burden, and would give students the opportunity to develop and improve themselves, so that their final grade reflects their actual, developed abilities.

This could manifest itself in a number of ways, but I believe the most effective would be:

  • Completing coursework or controlled assessment components (non-exam assessment or NEA) throughout the year, and then sitting a final exam at the end of the two-year process. Each element would account for a percentage of the final grade.
  • Completing shorter exams at spaced points throughout the two-year study. Each exam would account for a percentage of the final grade.

Option one (my preferred option) is similar to how GCSEs previously ran subjects that had NEA. There were of course issues with this, including students having more than acceptable help from their teachers to complete the work, and so the rigour of these elements would need to be considered.

Submitting a first draft and then later the final completed piece is one way around this, as is having spaced deadlines for each portion of the NEA, so that quality assurance could be carried out through a comparison of the pieces submitted over time.

Exam board regulated moderation would also be a key component, and may require either schools submitting all work for moderation or, once marks have been submitted, requesting a random sample for moderation – around 10 per cent of the cohort as a minimum. Awarding bodies would specify which students they would want to see.

Option two is initially perhaps more complicated, in terms of logistics, as you would need to dictate the order in which modules are taught, but the benefits, including spreading out the workload, are similar to option one.

There is some scope for this now, to an extent, with some schools choosing to enter students for one English exam in year 10, or completing GCSEs in their home language as early as possible. But this is still them sitting the entire exam in one go, rather than evenly spaced out.

Both of these options have similar benefits:

  • They allow students to showcase their development and their improvements in work over time.
  • It eliminates the “exam factory” style teaching that many schools have fallen into over the past few years – there will of course always be those who try and rig the system to best benefit their pupils, but if we remove the onus from the terminal exam itself, then at least the focus on pupils’ progress can be spread across the entire year.
  • Having components marked sooner along the GCSE journey means that pupils have real-time examples of their current strengths and this may ensure that more students do improve over the course of the year because they see their abilities highlighted by marks.
  • It takes some of the pressure away from the final exam, which will benefit students’ wellbeing and mental health.
  • It more accurately reflects life after education – exams are not often seen once education is complete (beyond driving tests!), but the ability to continually produce high-quality work and reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and progress is a skill most jobs require.
  • Evidence can be gathered prior to the end stage, meaning that should a situation like this arise again, we are not left in the same difficulty/situation.

Ultimately, what works for one subject may not necessarily work for another, so I do think the best way forward is for the assessment solution to be tailored to each subject or faculty. Just because something may work for English, a largely essay-based, opinion-heavy subject, does not mean it will work for maths, a fact-based subject that mostly utilises question and answer responses.

However, that does not mean we can’t think outside of the box. NEA can absolutely be carried out in maths, as it can be in the sciences and all other topics. It requires careful thought and planning, but it is very doable.

And now is the time to make these changes.

  • Chloe Testa is head of English at The Hollyfield School in Surbiton.

Further information

SecEd: The forgotten third, Geoff Barton, October 2019:


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