The role of education secretary has been a position in which Conservatives have often minted a reputation. Margaret Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any Labour counterpart. Keith Joseph picked up a policy left by Shirley Williams and created the GCSE. Kenneth Baker established the national curriculum. Michael Gove vastly expanded the academy schools programme. Recently, Gavin Williamson said schools and colleges might possibly, when he makes up his mind, get to give their pupils a bit of advance information on the subjects that will come up in their GCSEs.
The weeks in which Williamson does something either embarrassing or underwhelming are only bettered by the weeks in which he does nothing at all. There has been no sense, during his undistinguished tenure, of an education policy frustratingly thwarted by the pandemic. Instead, we have been forced to watch an Education Secretary selected on the irrelevant criterion of Brexit loyalty thrashing from one crisis to the next and occupying his office like a less convincing David Brent. Williamson has now announced that, to meet the disruption that Covid has visited on many, schools and colleges will help to determine the topics addressed in the examination session of summer 2022, especially in GCSE English literature, history and ancient history.
There is an actual policy staring Williamson in the face here, if he could only look. Last year the cohort of 4.5 million pupils were given GCSE grades based not on external examinations but on internal assessment. Who knows where we will be next summer after the inevitable surge in infections that comes about as a result of the government’s fatuous “freedom day” on 19 July?
The likelihood is that GCSEs next summer will be a hybrid of continuous assessment and public examination. Yet there is no need for all this confusion. Williamson could do something that would be popular with teachers and pupils alike and which would, into the bargain, be the smart course of action. He could use this crisis to abolish the GCSE for good.
The tradition of public examination for all pupils at the age of 16 derives from 1951, when the O-level replaced the old School Certificate. That began a dance which has continued ever since, between the high standard of a qualification for an academic elite and an examination sufficiently wide to encompass the whole cohort. In 1965, Tony Crosland, as the education secretary in Harold Wilson’s government, split the exam and introduced the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) for those not thought quite O-level standard.
Inevitably, this felt like a separation of the sheep from the goats and when Williams became education secretary under Jim Callaghan in September 1976, she wanted to reverse the policy. It wasn’t, though, until Keith Joseph took up the office in the first Thatcher administration that the shift back happened. In 1988 all pupils were once again placed under the rubric of a single examination at 16, the new General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).
Since then the GCSE has gradually lost most of the friends it had. According to taste you can pick your critique from among the following menu. Not enough pupils study foreign languages; there are too many soft qualifications as schools pursue places high up the league tables; too many candidates achieve the top grades; there are too many exams which last too long and exert too great a mental stress on the pupils who are sitting them; and the distinction between the GCSE and the IGCSE is a way of separating the sheep from the goats once again.
The criticisms are all true all at once. The GCSE really does only have one function, which is to act as a signalling device to help with the selection of those pupils who go on to do A-levels. We take two years out of the curriculum and force a vast amount of cramming and revision, just for this. Britain is one of the only countries in the developing world that insists on a public examination at the age of 16 and perhaps, when that was the school leaving age, it made some sense. Now that all students will remain in education or training until the age of 18 even that thin justification has disappeared. GCSE exams didn’t happen last year and the sky didn’t fall down. Internal assessment by teachers worked perfectly well – so let’s keep that system and call it a School Certificate.
Then we can stop the pointless charade of pretending that a single examination will ever stretch across a generation of pupils with such different interests and abilities. This is about more than aptitude; it is about propensity. It is destructive to some pupils to interrupt their education to brand them a failure at the age of 16. The abolition of the GCSE needs to be the first item of a new curriculum which gives students a core curriculum of maths, English and a science subject, and greater latitude to pursue their own aptitudes beyond the age of 14.
A quarter of all children, mostly from working-class families, do not register a single grade A or B at GCSE. It is all very well insisting they continue their studies up to the age of 18, but they are getting little from it, not even the maths and English they really need.
The last great Conservative revolution in education was Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill, known in the trade as Gerbil. It introduced the national curriculum, the key stages of education, devolved budgets, specialist schools and the testing regime. Williamson is famous only for having a tarantula on his desk. The abolition of the GCSE and introducing a curriculum that meets the array of talents in the country could be his Gerbil, if there is ever any suggestion that he is even remotely interested.
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook