GCSEs and A-levels ‘not fit for purpose’, says new campaign group

A new group, involving several independent school heads, called Rethinking Assessment has outlined the need for reform of A-levels and GCSEs

GCSEs and A-levels are “not fit for purpose” and should be abolished in favour of more holistic assessments, a group of leading educators has said.

A new group called Rethinking Assessment outlined the need for reform in an open letter published in The Times. The group, which comprises figures from independent education, state schools and universities, said it will “make the argument for change” and will pilot “workable solutions and practical ideas” in their schools as real alternatives.

“Many of those who are involved in the exams merry-go-round are reaching the same conclusion — it’s not fit for purpose and needs to change,” the Rethinking Assessment group said.

The letter was signed by several leading headteachers of independent schools, including Simon Henderson, Eton College; Sarah Fletcher, St Paul’s Girls’ School; Magnus Bashaarat, Bedales School, and Robert Lebatto, The King Alfred School, London.

“Many young people find the relentless practice for exams increasingly stressful; depression and self-harm statistics confirm this. The over-crammed curriculum on which tests are premised ensures ‘covering content’ matters more than a love for the richness of a subject,” the group wrote.

“No credit is given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers; in short, the stuff that helps you thrive in life, and makes you invaluable to employers.”

No credit is given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers – Rethinking Assessment

Rethinking Assessment said private sector companies are increasingly relying on their own assessments processes to identify high-quality applicants because traditional qualifications are losing their value as an indicator of ability.

The group also criticised the method of defining grade boundaries in the UK exam system because, unlike in other countries, there is no defined level for different grades – “a young person in the UK does not get a qualification if they meet the required level, but only if they are better than enough of their peers”, the letter continued.

The group argue new assessments could rely more on “teacher judgment”, which could be moderated in “skilled ways” as already happens for drama, art, music and languages at GCSE and A-level.

Read more: Cancellation of exams could prompt debate, says Gresham’s head

  • lindsey hodges

    Having twins has shown me that gcses do not measure the right way. My daughter has excelled as she has good memory and recall and can revise for long periods. Her twin brother is more intelligent, much better conversing with others a good leader and the one teachers are constantly amazed with but he has been let down with gcses except for maths and physics because he struggles to remember all the revision for 12 subjects at the same time.

  • Iain Kilpatrick

    Dear Sir

    The time to act is now for next year’s exams.

    As a school leader I, like all of my colleagues across the UK, have been grappling with the challenges of making sure pupils and staff return to a safe environment for the new school year. Although we are only a few weeks into term, already we are seeing the difficulties this is throwing up in areas where local lockdowns have been enforced and in schools where groups of pupils have been required to self-isolate. We all understand and accept why this is the case in order to control the spread of Coronavirus and protect public health. However, the ticking time bomb in the back of our minds is the provision being made for those pupils in Years 11 and 13 who are preparing for their final examinations next summer.

    With the prospect of continuing disruption over the coming months, I would implore Gavin Williamson and his colleagues at the Department for Education to give clear, unequivocal advice to schools now in order to avoid the confusion and resultant anxiety that we saw this summer. The only fair and workable solution, in my opinion, would be another year where schools submit teacher-generated grades in place of examinations which cannot now provide a level playing field to pupils who will have suffered varying degrees of disruption to their learning.

    And I would also urge the cynical naysayers who decried the increase in pass rates as the thin end of the educational wedge to be banished, along with the reforms so misguidedly brought in by Michael Gove (whatever happened to him?). The future of our young people is far too precious to be left in the hands of those who would rather compromise the hard work of pupils and the professional judgement of teachers at the altar of all-knowing algorithms. This summer showed, in sharp relief, that our present examination system is unfit for purpose. However, there is a shining opportunity to replace it with school-generated assessment: evidence-based and carefully moderated by the examination boards and Ofqual, to give the robust and transparent set of outcomes that our young people so richly deserve – with any school caught gaming the system called to account.

    Now is the time to act in a way that gets it right for our young people. So come on Gavin, be creative, decisive and resolute.

    Yours faithfully

    Iain Kilpatrick

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