By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
In a week of mostly bad news in education – namely the government’s squalid move to vilify schools by announcing a belated league table on the take-up of the National Tutoring Programme – there was a ray of light in the gloom courtesy of exams watchdog Ofqual.
Publishing its three-year plan on Wednesday, it announced that it would be exploring the use of technology in assessment and would be working with awarding organisations to that end.
This is something that ASCL has been suggesting – along with many others – for some time. It is simply incredible that in the digital age where every other sector has embraced online technology, exams are still rooted in a pen-and-paper era redolent of the 1950s.
Not only is this completely out of kilter with the working environment young people will enter, it also necessitates a logistical exercise of epic proportions. Exam papers have to be ferried around the country and stored under Fort Knox-style security arrangements on an industrial scale.
The fragility of the system became all-too-clear during the pandemic when exams had to be cancelled for two years in a row. It might have been possible to maintain some form of external assessment – certainly in 2020 when students had completed the majority of their courses – if the option had been available for online assessment.
Instead, we had all the rigmarole of centre-assessed grades and the car crash of the 'mutant algorithm'.
For all these reasons, some element of online assessment would be a good idea. But – and this is where we go further than Ofqual and the government – that isn’t quite enough. Online assessment needs to be accompanied by a rethink of exams themselves.
The problem is that there are far too many exams at GCSE, they involve too much memorisation, and the whip of accountability is largely applied to promoting academic subjects at the expense of technical and creative subjects.
As we have said on many occasions, the current system results in a large number of pupils – about one third – falling below the punishing bar of a Grade 4 pass in English and maths – something which has a profound effect on their future education and career options.
It is a system which seems to be designed to differentiate the most academically able students, but which leaves other young people demoralised and disengaged.
And there’s another reason why it needs to be reformed – the appalling toll on mental health and wellbeing. This was a problem before the pandemic, of course, but is more so now for a cohort of young people who are about to become the first set of students to take summer exams for three years.
Consider what we currently expect of these young people. Back in 2017, ASCL carried out some analysis about the new reformed GCSEs which were being introduced at that time and which are now embedded in the system.
We found that a pupil taking a typical set of the new GCSEs faced spending over eight extra hours sitting exams compared to the old system. In total, this amounted to 22 exams over a total length of 33 hours.
It is, of course, utterly ridiculous. There is simply no need for such a disproportionate weight of assessment at 16 to determine pathways for the next two years and beyond. And such a vast amount of testing over a short period – with such high stakes attached – is very obviously likely to have an impact on mental health and wellbeing. How could it not?
So, if there is one overriding reason why GCSE exams need a rethink it is surely this – the mental health and wellbeing of the young people concerned.
It is not some sort of ineluctable rite of passage. It is time to put an end to an approach that is outdated, and makes very little sense in an education system where most young people remain in school, college or other training until 18.
That isn’t an argument for sweeping away GCSEs altogether. They are well recognised qualifications with which parents and employers are familiar. But a few tweaks to reduce the burden of assessment, increase flexibility and make them more humane is surely not an unreasonable aspiration, nor one that is difficult to deliver.
Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.