Questioning GCSE

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

In a recent article by Haroon Siddique in The Guardian, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner expressed concern that Tory education reforms are putting state school pupils at a disadvantage compared to those educated in independent schools. More specifically, the Labour party is demanding an inquiry on the basis that state school pupils are obliged to sit GCSEs whilst many independent schools favour IGCSEs. The former are harder, claims Labour, with MP Lucy Powell arguing that independent schools are gaming the system by offering their students easy options, and insulating them against the effects of reforms whilst they are bedding in.

Labour is quite right to want an inquiry, but not on this premise which is shaky to say the least and misses the mark by some distance. One key question concerns the relevance of GCSE level qualifications in an age when education to age 18 is compulsory. Another is about assessment orthodoxies and, in turn, the relationship between these and issues of wellbeing amongst young people that have caused such concern in recent times.

In 2016 former Education Secretary, Lord Baker decried the squeezing out of creative and technical subjects in our schools. I share Lord Baker’s views on the inadequacy of the GCSE curriculum in preparing young people for the 21st century labour market, and indeed would not be unhappy to see them go. If we must have them, however, an inquiry should then ask what the curriculum and assessment should look like. I would argue, and many in education and industry would agree, that GCSEs are narrow and dull, and do little to prepare students for what awaits them at A level, higher education and in the workplace.

When Education Secretary, Michael Gove introduced the ‘new’ GCSEs, he lit the fuse, then withdrew a safe distance, and ultimately reappeared at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His ‘new’ GCSEs were all about ‘rigour’, which essentially meant doing away with coursework, and placing all the assessment in a terminal exam at the end of Year 11, with little or no scope for ‘re-takes’. But the acquisition of knowledge replaced the learning and application of skills, and inconsistent, unaccountable and sloppy marking remained the norm.

This is why so many schools, including Bedales, favour IGCSE as the richer option, whilst at Bedales we went one step further in also creating Bedales Assessed Courses (BAC) for 13 non-core subjects including Classical Music, Design, History, Philosophy, Religion & Ethics and Outdoor Work. In the summer of 2018 our first cohort completed the new BAC in Global Awareness, which requires students to conduct their own research on a global issue – eg. food poverty, housing, public health – and, through collaboration, to apply what they have learned to the problem in a local context, and then present it. We are immensely proud of what we consider to be a pioneering, demanding and highly relevant educational programme. Our reward for this? For BACs to be ignored in education league tables, a fate shared increasingly with the unduly maligned IGCSEs.

There is a long tradition of radical liberal thought informing the design and content of mainstream education in this country; rather than looking to score easy political points by bashing independent schools. Labour would do young people and schools alike a much greater service by working with us in finding alternatives to a curriculum and assessment regime that is dull, out of touch and frankly oppressive. With former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell warning that an addiction to exams for young people ramps up the risk of a mental health epidemic, the reformed GCSE system – built around a conviction that only end of course exams can truly assess learning – seems a dangerous horse to back.

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