Earlier this week, Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, branded GCSEs “pointless” and called for their abolition, suggesting a ‘holistic baccalaureate’ qualification with exams at age 18 should be introduced. His is not the only voice arguing this, with some, such as former education secretary Lord Baker, arguing that existing qualifications are now redundant due to the requirement for students to stay in education or training until 18. Others, however, have argued their view that the new GCSEs launched in 2017 are fit for purpose and working well as a more academic challenge. With apprenticeships and new technical qualifications also facing fierce scrutiny, this debate is seemingly never ending.
Adding further weight to the discussion, this week also saw Teacher Tapp respondents (the app that asks teachers three questions daily to get insight from the frontline) vote on which subject they would remove from the national curriculum. While 22% chose Design and Technology, only 4% chose Art and 7% Music. It appears the general consensus is the curriculum should act as a home for ‘academic’ subjects alongside ‘creative’, perhaps unsurprising when considering the leading independent schools around the world couple academic rigour with extracurricular enrichment.
Any debate over GCSEs has to include the fact that for the past two years free schools have been the top performing type of school at GCSE (Progress 8). The most recent results show that four of the top ten highest performing schools were free schools, despite making up only 2% of secondary schools posting results. These results are encouraging, but it is important to note that it’s still early days for the policy. However, they do go to show the success that free schools are starting to have at secondary level, which could well translate to strong results at a new assessment measure, if one were to be introduced.
We also know there are free schools across the country that were set-up to specifically to drive innovation, to move focus away from exam results and to create opportunities for students to attend the schools that is right for them. Year 10 students at School 21 in Newham spend one afternoon a week completing a Real World Learning Project – a type of work experience, a real project for an organisation. NSN has hosted several of these students over the past few years, all of whom are incredibly impressive representatives of their school and who offer real value to the organisations they join. School 21 is a great example of a school that strives to offer more of an education than that which could be measured in exams alone. There are others, too, who focus on enhancing the overall education of students, such as the XP School, Dixons Music Primary and Plymouth School of Creative Arts.
One criticism of the GCSE system that is easy to sympathise with is that they cause too much exam stress on young people. Arguably, piling on the pressure for a one-shot chance aged 18 will do little to alleviate the stress. Of course, stress isn’t the only argument for scrapping GCSEs. Critics have also argued that a wider ‘holistic baccalaureate’ would offer students a more rounded education, and would prove more useful for employers.
The fact that so many free schools take a fresh look at accepted ways of learning, refusing to accept the status quo and instead questioning how it can be improved, has already had hugely beneficial effects for students. Perhaps scrapping GCSEs would make a huge change to the lives of young people, perhaps it wouldn’t; until an agreement is reached free schools will continue to be at the heart of thinking outside the box and developing ways to transform education.