GCSEs are here for an awful lot longer, says Williamson

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·3-min read

The Education Secretary has ruled out scrapping GCSE exams in the years to come, despite growing calls to reform national assessments at the age of 16.

Gavin Williamson told heads that the Government is “absolutely” going to keep GCSEs, adding that the assessments will be here “for an awful lot longer”.

His comments came after ministers confirmed that teachers in England will help decide pupils’ A-level and GCSE grades this summer after exams were cancelled for the second successive year due to Covid-19.

Richard Sheriff, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told delegates at the union’s virtual conference that a reliance on “exams on an industrial scale” now felt “excessive and outdated”.

But speaking on the first day of the conference, Mr Williamson said he believed it was “really important” to have exams and full assessment at the age of 16 to help pupils transition to different colleges and schools.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (John Sibley/PA)

Addressing 1,500 delegates, the minister acknowledged that the £1.7 billion package for children who have faced disruption “only scratches the surface”.

Mr Williamson said “changes to the school day and term dates” will be considered by the Government as part of long-term measures.

“Our children have lost so much of their childhood and we have to make that up to them,” he said.

During a discussion with the union’s president, Mr Williamson admitted that he had been lobbied at home on how to improve the Department for Education.

He said: “My wife is a teaching assistant and it is always interesting because I obviously get quite a bit of lobbying. You know, our pillow talk is maybe a little bit different.

“She’s always sort of highlighting various issues where maybe the Department for Education hasn’t always got it perfect all the time and it’s always good to hear it from the frontline.”

Mr Williamson – who has faced calls to resign over his handling of education policy during the pandemic – admitted “not every day has been brilliant” as he told school leaders that he had bought a puppy.

He said: “The one thing about pets is that they always seem to be pleased to see you, especially dogs. So I think that sort of combination of family and dogs are probably the things that keep you sane.”

But the Education Secretary stressed that some good had come from the pandemic, adding that he had heard from heads that bullying had “radically reduced” in schools because year groups had been kept separate.

He said: “So we mustn’t, as we come out of this pandemic, not look back at some of the things that have really benefited and helped schools and how we can learn from that as well.”

Last month, Jane Prescott, president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), said ministers should reform “old-fashioned” GCSEs in the long-term.

The head said it would be “timely” for the Government to consider changing the national assessments at age 16 and look at their future relevance.

Addressing exams in a speech to the conference, Mr Sheriff said: “The fragility of our qualification system and its reliance on endless pen-and-paper examinations in exam halls has been brutally exposed by the pandemic.

“In approach to assessment – which is not dissimilar to that of the 1950s – is this really the best we can do for students in the 2020s? Isn’t it time to rethink assessment, make more use of technology, and provide children with wider opportunities to show what they can do?

“It is not just a matter of future-proofing the exam system in case, heaven forbid, there is another pandemic. It is more because the reliance on taking terminal exams on an industrial scale now seems so excessive and outdated.”