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End ‘arbitrary’ exams at age 16, says review

By Catherine Lough, PA Education Correspondent

The GCSE system should be overhauled, and pupils should have opportunities to demonstrate their skills up to the age of 19 rather than at a fixed point in time at the age of 16, a new report argues.

A review of the GCSE system by the Independent Assessment Commission (IAC) argues that testing of pupils “should not be based around a fixed age of 16”.

“Students should have opportunities to demonstrate achievements when ready”, throughout their schooling from age 14 to 19, the review adds.

It says that “fundamental changes” are needed to England’s exam system. While GCSEs could remain part of the system, it argues that “arbitrary” assessment at age 16 should be scrapped.

The report says that the IAC undertook its review “in the context of major, unanticipated changes in the approach taken to the assessment and grading of qualifications” during the pandemic, when full public exams were cancelled for two years in a row in 2020 and 2021.

It says that the review followed the “sudden, dramatic and contentious changes” to exams that became necessary as a response to the pandemic, and that this revealed how the system in England “was not sufficiently robust to cope with a crisis such as that related to Covid”.

It adds that it is “important to differentiate between the experiences in schools and colleges of changes to qualifications over the past two years” and plans for long-term changes to the future of exams, as the teacher assessment brought in in 2020 and 2021 “were changes that were responses to a pandemic”.

Professor Louise Hayward, chair of the IAC, said that it was “beyond doubt” that the current exams system was “failing its own test” to provide an assessment system that served pupils, society and the economy “sufficiently”.

“The IAC report identifies inequalities deeply ingrained in a system and which has to change if there is to be greater educational equality,” she added.

“We need a system that helps every young person to progress to college, employment or university with qualifications that recognise their achievements and the capabilities they need to succeed in the challenging times that lie ahead.

“Currently, too many young people feel that they are denied opportunities because their time at school has not been properly recognised – this is not good for them, nor is it good for their future employers, our economy and society.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that there was a “gathering body of opinion that our exams system needs an overhaul”.

He added: “Many people in education feel that our current system of GCSEs is an anachronism which harks back to an era when large numbers of young people left school at 16 rather than generally going on to further education and training as they do now.”

Mr Barton said that the Government had “doubled down on this anachronism” through “making the current iteration of GCSEs rather like old-fashioned O-levels”.

The reformed GCSEs introduced by former Education Secretary Michael Gove from 2015 onwards were intended to be more academically rigorous.

Mr Barton said GCSEs in their current form were “very academic, with lots of memorisation, and assessed almost solely on a large set of terminal exams”.

He added: “There is also a strong argument for making more use of digital technology in assessment, which could not only move us away from the pen and paper era but allow for more adaptive assessment built around the individual student.”

Exam board AQA announced plans for a pilot of online exams earlier this month, with up to 2,500 pupils participating. The pilot will include GCSE maths, English and science online and will also involve “adaptive – or ‘smart’ – assessments that adjust in difficulty as students progress through the test”.

Mr Barton added: “But we do need to be conscious also about the importance of ensuring that any adaptations to the current exam system are do-able and deliverable, and beware of entirely trying to re-invent the wheel.

“This in itself contains enormous challenges and risks. It is probably a case of evolution rather than revolution.”

AQA chief executive Colin Hughes said that digital assessment was “only a matter of time” and that as AQA was the largest exam board, it was “determined to play a key role in making it a success”.

“Digital reform is about evolution, not revolution, and doesn’t have to spell the end of GCSEs: as a qualification, they’ve proved extremely adaptable over time,” he added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Exams are the best and fairest form of assessing what students know and can do, and ensure young people leave school or college prepared for the workplace and higher study.

“Our reformed GCSEs rigorously assess the knowledge acquired by pupils and are in line with expected standards in countries with high-performing education systems.”

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