School Standards Minister Nick Gibb wrote in the Times today to stress the importance and value of GCSEs as pupils start their exams this week.
This week pupils in England are taking the first of this year’s GCSEs. Those who have been dedicatedly revising and are grappling with tricky questions may not immediately feel warmth towards them — but it’s important to recognise GCSEs as a national treasure.
1984. Thanks to George Orwell it’s not likely to be a year that slips any of our minds and yet in terms of education policy, few will remember that it was significant. What took place in that year went on to shape many of the groundbreaking education reforms that followed.
Thirty-five years ago, Keith Joseph, the education secretary, announced that O Levels and CSEs would be scrapped and replaced by the GCSE.
No system of academic examinations is perfect but O Levels and CSEs had created an assessment chasm whereby able students sat the more academically challenging O Levels and the less able took CSEs. Some students took both and, as neither exam shared a grading system, it’s fair to assume that no one really knew what the respective grades meant in terms of academic attainment.
The decision to launch GCSEs was a quiet revolution which began a period of profound change for our education system. It culminated in the Education Reform Act 1988, which ushered in the national curriculum. The GCSEs were intended to bring clarity and consistency to examinations: students would be rigorously tested on their mastery of a subject, while teachers and future employers would know exactly what the resulting grade meant in terms of attainment.
Students first sat the new exams in 1988 and, in the intervening years, these have seen a fair bit of tweaking to the original format. Subjects have been added or altered to reflect the way that society and the needs of the economy have changed: computer science and citizenship are examples. Mandarin has joined French and German, Latin and Greek as one of our language GCSEs.
They have not been without criticism. Between 1997 and 2010 there was significant grade inflation — the number of pupils achieving A*-A grades increased by 58 per cent and yet employers were saying that recruits were pitching up for work without the basic skills they needed to do the job.
Since 2010, when I joined the Department for Education, there has been a drive to re-establish confidence in the system and bring rigour back not only to GCSEs but also the wider curriculum and so we have continued to reform and refine them.
We are building a world-class education system that will equip every pupil with the knowledge and skills they need to make their way in the world.
All children, wherever they come from, should read widely and independently. They should be able to analyse the language used and distinguish between what is explicit and what is implied. They should read a play by Shakespeare and be able to calculate complex ratios and solve algebraic equations.
In 2014 the government introduced a more ambitious national curriculum, based on a knowledge-rich approach with a focus on core knowledge.
And we’ve introduced the English baccalaureate, the suite of academic subjects we want as many pupils as possible to study at GCSE. It’s made up of the subjects we know people value. YouGov polling shows that the public values English, maths and the sciences above all other subjects and that they hold languages, history and geography in high regard. It means that as we go forward parents can be assured that their children will leave school equipped with that core body of knowledge they expect our schools to provide.
Changing a national education system is not a quick fix. You don’t change it and expect to see immediate results. Some of the changes we have introduced are only just starting to filter through the system.
For those who feel that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way in favour of rigour, I make no apology for raising standards. The system is adapting well to the reforms thanks to the application of both pupils and teachers. Exams are always tough but they are part of the reality of school life and help build resilience.
Some things don’t change, however. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte and Wilfred Owen could all be found on the syllabus in 1984. They are still there but they’ve been joined by a richer selection of writers that not only reflects our diverse society but the cultural changes that have taken place over the past 35 years.
The GCSE has proved to be a flexible mainstay of the educational system. It shows its worth year by year as successive generations of young people lay the foundations for their adulthood. The GCSE has become a valuable, important qualification that should be treated as a national treasure.