Pros and cons of GCSEs: is the exam system fit for purpose?

Tony Blair has called for ‘radical’ education reform but others want a more cautious approach

Students sit an exam
GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) were introduced in 1986
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

GCSEs and A levels should be scrapped in favour of a system that better prepares students for the modern workplace, according to a new report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The think tank is calling for “radical reform” to the education system in order to put more emphasis on the so-called four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving. The report – titled “Ending the big squeeze on skills: how to futureproof education in England” – said new qualifications involving “multiple, rigorous forms of continuous assessment” should be introduced, while retaining “a series of low-stakes assessments” at the end of secondary schooling.

In an article in The Telegraph, former prime minister Blair argued that the current system “revolves around snapshot judgements instead of assessing whether schools are preparing young people for the future they face”.

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But a report released by the Institute for Government this week warned that while the current system was “certainly imperfect”, proposals for a major overhaul “typically exaggerate the benefits while failing to acknowledge the costs”.

As students nationwide receive their GCSE results today, here are key arguments for and against the secondary education qualification.

1. Pro: widely recognised

Proponents of keeping the current system argue that GCSEs are recognised and viewed favourably by employers in many countries.

Responding to Blair’s calls for reform, a Department for Education spokesperson said that GCSEs and A levels “are highly respected around the world” and provide students with a “​​rich and fulfilling curriculum which equips them with the skills to succeed”.

2. Con: out of step

While those in favour of GCSEs claim the qualification is internationally respected, critics insist the system is out of step with the rest of the world.

“The UK is in a small minority among developed nations in having public examinations at 16,” wrote The New Statesman’s Philip Collins. “Few nations divide their student populations as we do at that age. It’s time we stopped.”

3. Pro: scrutiny for schools

GSCEs are an effective means to assess and rate secondary schools, according to former schools minister Nick Gibb. In an article for The Telegraph, the Tory MP wrote that while Blair’s “latest foray into education policy is a throwback to the tired old progressive mantras of the 1960s”, GCSEs “define a demanding curriculum for schools, helping to hold those schools to account”.

“Abolish GCSEs and weaker schools will let down generations of students,” Gibb warned.

4. Con: out of date

Critics insist that GCSEs are simply out of date. In his article in The Telegraph this week, Blair wrote that the current system provides “analogue learning for a digital age”. To “thrive in a world increasingly shaped by automation and AI,” he continued, “people will need skills that complement these technologies”.

But GCSEs and A levels “do far too little to meet these needs and employers are increasingly disgruntled by what they are seeing”.

5. Pro: reliable exams

In an article in Tes magazine (formerly the Times Educational Supplement), former Department for Education adviser Sam Freedman argued that the existing exams provide a vital assessment tool for the UK’s “unusually selective” higher education institutions and employers.

“It is this need for reliability that drives much of the English model of assessment,” said Freedman, now a senior fellow at the Institute for Government. By contrast, continuous assessment and coursework are “much harder to make accurate and fair”, he continued, and “tends to benefit those who are wealthy”.

In an article for the i news site, secondary school teacher Nadeine Asbali conceded that “it often seems nonsensical and downright cruel to stick 16-year-olds in a sweltering hall to assess them on things they’ve learned over the last two years, and to use that one hour to judge these young people for the rest of their lives”.

But “the problem is, there is no foolproof, perfect method of assessing pupils”, she added.

6. Con: wrong subjects

Calling for the “wasteful, costly and cruel” GCSEs system to be axed, The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins wrote that “we can only weep to think how much learning relevant to a child’s life in the community is being sacrificed” to outdated views about suitable curriculum content.

“I cringe to look at a GCSE curriculum,” he continued. “Compulsory maths and science, but no compulsory health, economics, law, civics, computing or human relationships. History and geography are mere ‘options’. What cult is in charge of this monastery?”

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