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The GCSE has had its day and should be ditched

Wider, more diverse and more meaningful learning can be introduced – but it might be easier said than done while neoliberal ideology dominates our schools, says TONY REA

UNUSUAL times have brought about a degree of accord between left- and right-wing thinkers on education. 

On Saturday October 10 the AGM of the Socialist Educational Association passed two motions. 

The first called for high-stakes testing, including GCSEs, not to take place next year because of Covid-19 (though Tory Secretary of State Gavin Williamson thinks delaying the exams by three weeks is a solution). 

The second called for the long-term abolition of GCSEs. This comes shortly after a paper from the One Nation Conservatives which called for the abolition of GCSEs, arguing that England is unusual in making teenagers sit two sets of high-stakes exams within the space of three years, and that this is partly responsible for high levels of stress and unhappiness among pupils. 

However, there are powerful vested interests from capitalism and neoliberalism that may make these calls difficult to follow through.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced in England, Northern Ireland and Wales in 1988, replacing both the CSE and the GCE O-level. 

The GCSE was a leaving certificate and in 1988 most children left school at aged 16. 

However, the Education and Skills Act of 2008 made education or training compulsory until the age of 18 (effective from 2015). 

In other words, children do not leave education aged 16. So why do we need the GCSE?

The short answer is we do not. GCSEs are expensive, time consuming, stressful and valorise the “winner-takes-all” individual performance rather than co-operative learning in diverse teams which is much more akin to post-school demands. 

Like all other high-stake tests, GCSEs tend to discriminate against working-class children as well as those from black and some other ethnic minority groups. 

In preparation for these unnecessary and discriminatory GCSEs, children are taught a narrow syllabus and prepared for certain questions. 

They revise, undertake mocks, revise again — all for a piece of paper they don’t really need any more. 

That time would be better used for wider, more diverse and more meaningful learning. 

But there is a large vested interest in continuing with GCSEs.

Exam boards appropriate huge amounts of public money by selling their GCSEs. 

In 2019 the weighted average price of a GCSE was £39.31, up from £37.30 on the previous year. That’s almost £40 per subject per pupil. 

Assuming 1.5 million 16-year-olds taking an average of nine GCSE subjects each, that adds to a massive £540m of public money per round of exams.

Textbook publishing houses likewise feed off the GCSE. Sometimes the exam boards and publishers are one and the same entity. 

For example, Pearson Education, the large British-owned education publishing and assessment corporation, which describes itself as “the world’s leading learning company,” with “a simple mission: to help people make more of their lives through learning,” owns Edexcel (previously the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council, an educational charity until 2003, when it was taken over by Pearson, becoming the only British exam board to be run by a profit-making company) and through it markets qualifications including GCSEs, A-levels, International GCSEs and Edexcel Certificates and also offers NVQ and BTEC qualifications. 

Meanwhile, Pearson publishing — recently rebranded as Anspear — publishes not only traditional paper GCSE textbooks, but also masses of online learning materials through its nimbl digital platform.

Neoliberalism is a toxic culture inflicted on British society first by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, then defended by Tony Blair. 

It has infected many aspects of society, including health, social care, the legal system and education. 

Put simply, neoliberalism has turned education into a commodity and forces parents to make choices between schools. 

To enable this, neoliberalism needs the data generated by GCSEs alongside Sats and A-levels in order to create so-called school league tables which allow the comparison of institutions. 

Though this system has been much criticised, and doubt thrown on the validity of comparisons made on crude rank-order tables, until we have ditched neoliberalism it will be difficult to rid society of the GCSE.

It is most unlikely that GCSE reform will come from Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. It must, therefore, be part of the Labour Party’s next manifesto. 

Ditching the GCSE will be difficult in the face of powerful vested interests and a future Labour government will need to be confident, bold and decisive if it is to do so. 

Tony Rea is a Labour councillor in Ivybridge, south Devon, and a member of the Socialist Educational Association’s national executive committee. He is now retired, having worked in secondary schools and universities in Britain and overseas. Tony Has a PhD in education from the University of Plymouth. All views expressed here are his own.

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