Friday, 6 March 2009

The future of GCSEs

The decision of Manchester Grammar School to abandon GCSE in favour of the iGCSE highlights the dilemma that faces most independent schools. We all want to give our pupils an education at KS4 that stretches them and provides them with a secure foundation for A-level. On the one hand, we recognise that GCSE has become less rigorous academically each year; on the other, the alternatives mean a fragmentation of the examination system which risks our pupils' qualifications not being understood or valued by universities or employers.

GCSE, for all its flaws, has provided a unified examination system since 1986. In theory the GCSE grade structure accommodated the weakest pupils, whilst providing for the most able, but this has been gradually eroded over the years. There are real dangers that the independent sector will become marginalised or discriminated against if it cuts itself off from the system of mainstream education in the country. If we remain with GCSE our pupils can demonstrate their proven relative quality and more easily demonstrate their ability in comparison to those in the maintained sector.
Top schools have always found ways to stretch the brightest pupils within the system, whether it was by putting pupils in for GCSEs early, or by increasing the number taken. The problem that we now face is that in "dumbing down" the curriculum to its lowest common denominator, the structure of GCSE has changed. The new science curriculum is a case in point. Foundation level science, which forms a compulsory part of the assessment, embraces a wider social agenda [Try an OCR Foundation Stage Biology Paper]. Whereas in the past, bright students could effectively skip this level, by doing a higher tier paper, now they have to waste time, both in the classroom and the exam hall, learning at a low level. The new science curriculum is modular, so pupils can retake their examinations, which puts further unnecessary pressure on pupils and schools. Many independent schools are teaching these elements of the GCSE course in Year 9 and putting them in for examination early in Year 10, so the examination culture is now permeating the lower years more, which is not a good thing for young people. The introduction of "functional skills" into GCSE Mathematics and English next year is likely only to have the effect of dumbing down these subjects as well.

Sadly, I believe that we are witnessing the inevitable fragmentation of the National examination system. If we are to stretch our brightest pupils and if we are to produce academic and scientific world leaders, as we have in the past, then it is not surprising that we are all looking for a more demanding alternative to GCSE.

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  1. I've watched the debate unfold with some interest over the course of this week.

    Reading your post it seems like you'd like move away from GCSE, although with reservations about the loss of a unified system of assessment at KS4.

    I'm curious to know what your views are on the merits of both IGCSE and the IB. How might students be 'discriminated' against, to use your word, if these were to be taught instead of GCSEs? Given that universities are looking at a bigger picture, including AS results, predicted A2 grades, plus reports from teachers at school, what would the perceived risks be, in your opinion?

  2. We are embarking on a major review of the structure of the week and of the curriculum at Berkhamsted next term, with a view to putting it in place for September 2010. I anticipate that some departments will undoubtedly be considering IGCSE for the most able pupils, but it unlikely to be the right course for all. We are not Manchester Grammar School and we do have a broader philosophy of education than they have.

    I think that it is healthy for us to consider alternatives to A-level, such as the IB and the Pre-U on a regular basis, but I anticipate remaining with A-level for the foreseeable future.

    I am concerned that a future Government with an agenda of wider university participation might hit upon any aspect that would justify discriminating against independent school candidates. For example, at present, anyone wishing to teach in the maintained sector is required to have passes in Maths and English at GCSE. If independent schools abandon GCSE, it is easy to conceive of a time when they might extend this principle and insist on passes in Mathematics and English at GCSE to be eligible for Government university tuition fee funding.