Family & Education

Is it time to give GCSEs the boot?

There is a growing call to review the place of exams for 16-year-olds


Three-quarter front view of male and female teenagers in uniforms sitting at desks and concentrating while writing in composition booklets.

A number of newspapers reported the decision of Bedales, the co-educational boarding school in Hampshire, to ditch GCSEs in all but two subjects.

Its pupils already sit only five GCSEs, while devoting the rest of their time to tailor-made courses designed by the school.

But they will withdraw further from the national exams for 16-year-olds that, in the view of headteacher Will Goldsmith, are “outdated”, and in future take them just in English language and maths.

Bedales has a reputation of being a progressive school ready to experiment but its move will chime with a broader constituency that believes a review of the exam structure is overdue.

The main argument against GCSEs is that they have produced an over-prescriptive curriculum, cramping schools’ room for flexibility and creativity. An undue focus on exams leads too many teachers simply to “teach to the test”. GCSE courses are meant to be taught over two years but many schools start teaching for them a year earlier in year-9.

Former Prime Minister John Major two years ago criticised the “stress and strain” caused by GCSEs, suggesting it would be possible to offer a “more rounded education” without them.

In a world that is being transformed by AI, anti-GCSE advocates call for a more modern approach to formal education that puts greater emphasis on skills rather than seeing whether pupils can regurgitate packets of discrete subject knowledge.

The Times Education Commission last year urged radical reform of the system with the introduction of a European-style Baccalaureate to replace A-levels, for which children would study a broader range of subjects up to 18. Instead of GCSEs, pupils would be assessed at 16 on a smaller batch of five core subjects, with continuous assessment contributing to attainment.

The current English Baccalaureate is a confusing misnomer. It is not a separate qualification, but represents a suite of GCSEs, which was intended to prioritise the more academic subjects (it measures the percentage of students who gain a pass in English, maths, two sciences, a language and history or geography). Its critics say that all it has done to narrow the curriculum for teenagers.

Meanwhile, the grading system has its idiosyncrasies with grade 4 (out of 9) recognised as a pass, but not by some universities who will only accept a 5. In any case, for less academic students, a proficiency test in literacy and numeracy could be a better option than the current exam.

Measured by the annual exam performance tables, Jewish schools overall are doing well. But there is a benefit to be had from a timetable less dominated by the national curriculum in the first five years of secondary education. A less rigid curriculum might allow more scope for programming Jewish studies — and that is something that Jewish schools should welcome.

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