GCSEs and A-levels should be replaced with ‘more flexible’ assessments – union

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

GCSEs and A-levels should be replaced with alternative assessments in the long term, teachers have said.

School staff now have a “golden opportunity” to stop “toxic testing” amid growing calls to reform the national assessments, the National Education Union’s (NEU) virtual annual conference heard.

A motion passed at the conference called for GCSEs and A-levels to be replaced with “more flexible” means of assessment.

It added that the conference supports “the radical transformation of A-levels and post-16 qualifications to broaden the choices available to students, supporting them in accessing future learning and careers.”

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Teachers in England will decide pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades this summer after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row amid the pandemic.

The changes to assessment have triggered calls across the sector for GCSEs to be reformed post-Covid.

The original motion called for the abolition of GCSEs, but delegates voted to amend the motion.

Instead, the conference backed the “replacement of GCSEs and A-levels with wider ranging, more flexible curricula, specifications and means of assessment which engage with the needs of students in the 21st century”.

Delegates also reiterated their support for the abolition of Sats tests and the baseline assessment in primary schools.

The conference voted to “mount a vigorous campaign – using the fact that no statutory primary tests have taken place for two years – to reignite calls for an alternative assessment strategy”.

This campaign could include “taking action, up to and including balloting primary members to boycott statutory high-stakes testing”.

During the debate, Duncan Morrison, from Lewisham, south-east London, said: “We have a golden opportunity to win our agenda to stop toxic testing.”

He added: “Parents can see we don’t need tests. They can see there is an alternative. Everyone can see there is no case for going back.

“We must push this advantage home now.”

Another motion, which was backed by delegates at the annual NEU conference, described GCSEs and A-levels as “not fit for purpose”.

It added that students’ progress would be better assessed and supported through a mix of approaches – “including moderated teacher assessment”.

Denis White, of Bradford, West Yorkshire, said teacher assessment “points the way forward to a fairer method of assessment”.

“This is much preferable to high-stakes end-of-year final exams with students cramming knowledge at the end of the course and endlessly practising exam papers, he said.

“This is the culture of the exam factory which has come to dominate everything we do in schools.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The pandemic has taught us bitter lessons about the consequences of inequality for health, life chances and wellbeing.

“Today, the union has set out the measures Government should take to learn from the failures of the past and to open up our narrow, test-driven and restrictive education system so that it benefits all learners, from the early years to adulthood.

“The Government’s dogmatic belief in testing all primary pupils in order to monitor school performance is destroying children’s enjoyment in learning and lowering the quality of education.

“The union will be campaigning to ensure that the Government drops its plans to test all four-year-olds when they enter reception class and gives up the idea of restoring SATs in 2022.”

She added: “Moving with the grain of educational opinion, the union is calling for fundamental reform of 16+ and 18+ examinations.

“On the Government’s watch, we are stuck more deeply than ever in a divided and debt-ridden system of further and higher education which offers opportunities to some, while leaving others with no clear pathway to study and qualifications.

“In a society aiming at economic progress and general wellbeing, these arrangements are archaic and intolerable.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “There are no plans to replace GCSEs.

“Our reformed GCSEs rigorously assess the knowledge acquired by pupils and are in line with expected standards in countries with high performing education systems.

“They have also been reformed and strengthened based on feedback from higher and further education institutions and employers to ensure young people leave school or college prepared for the workplace and higher study.”