Have GCSEs become outdated?

Overseas-education | Pat Moores 28 Sep 2021

The general certificate of Secondary Education was introduced in 1988, and since then, these qualifications and their international equivalent qualifications have acted as the pathway to advanced qualifications such as the IB and A Levels.

Crucially, they are also often the qualifications students have already gained when applying for universities both in the UK and overseas and so these results play a very important part in universities' decision-making process when making degree offers to students.

However, it is possible that a new system of post qualification offers from universities will replace the current system of offers being made before IB, BTEC and A-Level results are announced. Instead, offers may be made when IB, BTEC and A-Level results are known (www.gov.uk/government/news/government-plans-for-post-qualification-university-admissions).

This change inevitably raises the question about the value and current content of GCSEs and IGCSEs. If they are no longer needed to inform a university offer, are they still fit for purpose?

Former education secretary Gavin Williamson recently insisted there are no plans to replace the GCSE exam but there are many in the sector who see the potential change in the university application process as providing the perfect opportunity to replace GCSE's.

Mike Oliver, principal of Brooke House College, said: "It simply cannot be sensible to maintain a qualification that clearly does not suit a great many young people in the UK who leave school without GCSE English or mathematics and then spend time at a further education college or such like, trying to re-take these failed examinations before being able to access the jobs market in any meaningful way."

From an international perspective there is much in favor of retaining the GCSE. For pupils coming from a different education system in year eight or nine, GCSE exams are a great way to prep for A-Level or IB study.

Gareth Collier, principal at Cardiff Sixth Form College, said: "The role that these qualifications play beyond mere grades in preparing pupils to understand and achieve well in the British education system could be undermined if they join the education system later and have less time to develop crucial English language skills that come with studying IGCSEs in English, taught by native speakers."

Also, as Caroline Nixon, director of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, pointed out, there needs to be a continued focus on "developing knowledge of a range of subjects and basic levels of literacy and numeracy."

However, there is also an argument that for too many pupils, including some international students, an alternative qualification that better measures broader skills - rather than a narrow range of mostly academic subjects - would be better preparation for a post-Covid world.

It is highly debatable how GCSEs develop young people's soft skills. These soft skills are likely to form the bedrock of future employability as so many hard skills will be automated in the coming decade.

Nearly two thirds of secondary school teachers and small and medium enterprises believe that students don't currently have the soft skills needed to prepare them for the workplace (www.fenews.co.uk/fevoices/36418-soft-skills-crisis-threatens-uk-s-future-economic-prosperity-skills2030).

The focus on an end-of-two-year-study-period exam in each subject is probably not the greatest preparation to explore and develop core soft skills such as collaboration, communication, language skills, cognitive or emotional empathy, time management, teamwork and leadership traits.

So, what are some alternatives?

There are qualification boards such as ASDAN that offer qualifications that help measure and develop soft skills. Through its Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, for example, young people can gain accreditations for work experience and charitable activities.

Also, some schools are trying to reimagine existing qualifications and introduce new qualifications to meet the skill gaps.

For example, whilst only currently offered in sixth form, Stoke College's Diploma in Global Competencies offers a unique qualification that builds soft skills many employers feel are not a priority within the current examination system. Independent thinking and research skills, an understanding of global socioeconomic issues as well as personal finance and the acquisition of basic language skills to communicate with people from many parts of the world are some of the diploma's key features.

Sports coaching qualifications, speech, music and drama qualifications allow students to draw upon and apply their individual strengths and passions to achieve the diploma.

All one can hope is that the Department for Education consults widely.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new, globally recognized qualification that better meets the needs of more young people and the automated world they will be entering, where soft skills will be at a premium.

Pat Moores is the director of UK Education Guide, an independent source of advice and information about UK Education providers.

Website: www.ukeducationguide.com

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