GCSEs “hold back young people and the country as a whole,” the Tony Blair Institute has said, as it renewed its calls to scrap the exams and replace them with a new system.
Speaking to NationalWorld, TBI senior education policy adviser Alexander Iosad warned that young people in England are “leaving school ill-prepared for the workplace.” He explained: “While pupils elsewhere around the world are learning how to think critically, communicate, and solve problems - our education system remains firmly in the past”.
He then slammed the country’s “emphasis on examinations as the lynchpin of assessment”, arguing that this approach is “harming” young people’s education. The TBI has therefore suggested scrapping both GCSEs and A-Levels and replacing them with an entirely new qualification students would take at the age of 18 - which it said would “more accurately reflect the development of students’ knowledge and abilities.”
The comments come the day before students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will receive their GCSE results. Grades are expected to drop in comparison with last year as part of the government’s and examiners’ mission to bring results back in-line with pre-pandemic levels, but this is also predicted to mean a drop in the number of students passing their Maths and English GCSEs - which experts warned will see certain students trapped in a “demoralising” cycle of retakes.
GCSEs have also faced criticism this year by those who have argued that the 2023 cohort have also had their education disrupted by the pandemic - but have not received the same allowances as the cohorts from 2020, 2021, and 2022. Meanwhile, other experts have argued that exams in general need to be re-considered, after a report said the “under-performance” of boys in comparison to girls should be “of national concern”.
Explaining a possible alternative to GCSEs, the TBI’s Mr Iosad told NationalWorld: “We need to scrap GCSEs and A-Levels and replace them with a new qualification at 18 based on robust, sophisticated methods of ongoing and end-point assessment.
“This system is possible if we embrace technology by giving every student a Digital Learner ID, which would contain all of their educational information.
“This would then more accurately reflect the development of students’ knowledge and abilities, so that they can be taught differently, with the opportunity to use innovative new tools and materials, and using AI and data to revolutionise the experience of both students and teachers.”
In 2022, the TBI published a study - Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England - which recommended the education system in England should be radically changed so that students can thrive in a work environment that is becoming increasingly shaped by technology such as AI.
It argued that the current educational landscape in England relies too heavily on passive forms of learning - such as instruction and memorising - and needs more emphasis on the so-called four Cs – critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaborative problem-solving.
As part of this report, the TBI recommended replacing the current exams system with new qualifications that would involve regular assessment between the ages of 16 and 18 - and would “draw on and refine the principles that underpin the International Baccalaureate”. A series of low-stakes assessments, instead of two sets of high-stakes ones, “would help inform pupil choice and hold schools to account”, the report argued.
However, there was some pushback at the time from the Institute for Government (IFG), which argued that “the last thing” schools need at the moment is “another assessment revolution”. In a report, the IFG said that while the current system is “imperfect”, a sweeping reform “would be a major undertaking.”
It explained: “The return for all this highly complex, time-consuming, and risky reform would be uncertain. Reducing the stakes for assessment would mean reducing the risk of gaming and of the requirement for high levels of reliability.
“This would allow the use of a wider range of assessment types such as continuous assessment, coursework, and controlled assessment, [but] the benefits of these different types of assessment are unclear.
“It is not the case that coursework, for instance, helps lower-income students. Nor is there any reason to think it better reflects the workplace. No secondary assessment could feasibly reflect the future workplaces of every student given the wide range of careers they will go on to,” it concluded.