• The Belvedere Journal

Is It Time For Us To Radically Rethink GCSE Exams?

Jess R: Full text of GDST Chrystall Prize Speech

The education system works on the premise that all of your intelligence can be condensed into one exam period; it judges both you and your quality of education on a set of standardised exams that do nothing but prove your ability to regurgitate information.

Imagine you’re starting a new job. You walk in with excitement, but undoubtedly some trepidation too. You settle at your desk with the desire to make the best impression you can possibly make. Suddenly, your new boss arrives at your desk, they look you in the eye and in all seriousness say:


“Here’s your task, you will have barely enough time to finish it to a good standard. You cannot use the internet, you cannot ask for help, you cannot have any resources that may help you, and you will need to recall information that has taken you at least 2 years to learn in the first place.”


It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Now imagine they say that to you about eight more times, ask you to complete tasks associated with entirely different subject areas, and that there is only a 42.3% chance that you would do well enough to be deemed ‘adequate’. This is the reality that year 11’s all across Britain face every year with the examination process.


The education system works on the premise that all of your intelligence can be condensed into one exam period; it judges both you and your quality of education on a set of standardised exams that do nothing but prove your ability to regurgitate information. Of course, there are some exceptions, for example, you couldn’t produce an amazing piece of creative writing without original ideas, but as a system, the current GCSE curriculum is primarily based on whether or not you can recite information in an unrealistic and stifling environment, not whether you understand the information you are spewing, or apply this to a real-life scenario.


The format of sitting a set of extremely important exams at 15-16 years of age has not changed since it was formally introduced in 1951 when O Levels became standard practice. How is it that almost every major institution in the UK has developed and adapted significantly, yet the core structure of education hasn’t? The workplace in the 1950s looks nothing like our current day workplaces, yet students are still assessed in mostly the same way as they were 50 years ago. 52% of graduate employers say current graduates are not at all work-ready. 93% of employers said they would prioritise “essential skills” over degree grades. These essential skills that are prioritized by employers include the ability to make mistakes and adapt to change, courage, teamwork, emotional intelligence, authenticity, learning through failure, self-motivation, and so many more essential life skills that aren’t just dismissed in the teaching of GCSE content but are often actively discouraged. GCSE’s are focused on learning for a qualification, rather than learning with passion and a drive to become a more accomplished student and a more highly-educated individual.


PISA results reveal that teens in the UK are increasingly unsatisfied with their lives, with the largest drop in life satisfaction of all 30 countries in the study. Adolescence is also a pivotal time for brain development, both emotionally and intellectually. It is the time in which people are given more responsibility and the opportunity to develop a level of self-awareness that is vital for future success and wellbeing. In recent years the ‘science of happiness’ has seen an upsurge in popularity, and it has been made clear with this new academic focus on wellbeing, that the developments that happen in the brain during adolescence are key to forming healthy attitudes and habits that could aid, or inhibit you in later life. With this in mind, it seems that positioning a set of high stakes exams in the middle of this crucial stage of physical and mental development seems counterintuitive.


Vocational qualifications are offered in many schools nowadays, which do prioritize giving students more career-based skills, yet they are still frequently deemed as much less ‘academic’ than GCSEs, with most schools only advising students with lower academic capability to take BTEC qualifications, although they are equivalent to GCSEs. Much of GCSE content results in being redundant for everyday usage, yet still, we hold these qualifications in such high regard, especially in contrast to their vocational counterparts. Vocational qualifications are extremely useful in the way that they allow people to get career-specific training that leads straight into paid employment - so why are these not valued more highly in the educational environment of 2021 Britain?


While GCSE exams are currently considered to be the fairest way of assessing a pupils’ academic ability, the system as it currently stands favours those in more affluent and privileged circumstances, with those who are privately educated disproportionately dominating the top grades and consequently the top jobs, and although the education system does allow for some degree of social mobility, those who are wealthier consistently outperform their disadvantaged peers. This begs the question, does our system of education actually provide equal education for all or does it simply perpetuate current inequalities?


The British education system is simply not designed to best suit the needs of all its pupils. Finland, for example, has one of the most successful, flourishing education systems in the world, and it succeeds because they have thought of the students in every step of its design. The Finnish education system, in my opinion, is impressive not only because Finland is ranked as the 7th smartest country in the world, but they are consistently ranked near the top of the UN’s yearly happiness report for adolescents. Some of the features they include are as follows: Finland does not require children to start school until they are 7, and even when they do start school it is relatively low pressure with minimal homework, and only a few standardised exams. Instead, they focus on establishing the metacognitive ability to self assess and develop personal skills that will benefit children for the rest of their adult lives.



In conclusion, I believe it is necessary to at least consider the abolition of GCSEs as the only truly respected method of student assessment. I think it is about time we all started focusing on the development of pupils as individuals, instilling them with skills and ideals that will help them in the future, as well as starting to offer students the option to have more educational freedom about what they study and how they study it. Vocational qualifications should be better respected by colleges and universities and should be more encouraged by schools. There are so many other ways we could assess students' capability, rather than just academic examinations. Most importantly, we should start to realise that a failure at 16 years old should not hinder your life chances like it currently does. Realistically, when children fail their GCSEs, it should not just be seen as their fault, but as an indication that the rigid system they are working in simply does not suit their needs or learning style. Education always has and always will be a key part of society, with major influences on the way that society functions, and therefore a positive change in the format of examinations system would also have a positive impact on the rest of the community.


Overall, the reevaluation of the GCSE system as we know it is imperative for the success of future generations.




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