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Majority of school leaders surveyed want GCSEs scrapped or reformed

By Richard Vernalls
GCSEs should be reformed or scrapped, according to a majority of school and college leaders polled by a teachers' union.

More than four fifths of 799 respondents, or 86%, wanted the qualifications shaken-up or done away with altogether, according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Students began sitting tougher GCSEs with the 9-1 grading scheme for the first time in 2017.

But school leaders surveyed said the exams left too many pupils demoralised, increased anxiety and also raised concerns the qualifications were not fully accessible to lower attaining students, including those with special educational needs.

Of those polled, 316 - or 39.55% - wanted GCSEs scrapped altogether and assessment for 16-year-olds reviewed.

Those backing retention with reform of the current qualifications numbered 375 respondents (46.93%), while 108 wanted to keep GCSEs as they are.

Opening the union's two-day conference in Birmingham on Friday, Rachael Warwick, ASCL president, will tell 1,000 delegates that the current qualifications format is a "perfect storm".

She will say: "Is it really too much to ask that the Government looks again at GCSEs?

"That it recognises that the reforms it introduced to deliberately make GCSEs harder have resulted in life becoming even more difficult for the very children who most need our support?

"Surely, the fact that this is being said by school leaders - the people who deliver these qualifications - should be listened to.

"The pressure of a large number of terminal exams and the ignominy of Grades 1-3 are creating young people who exhibit unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety.

"Add to this the pernicious potential of social media to attack self-esteem and perpetuate bullying, and the fact that nearly a third of the country's children grow up in grinding, relentless poverty, and we have a perfect storm."

The union said respondents who wanted GCSEs scrapped felt it was also time to review assessment at aged 16, when young people are expected to stay in education or training until 18.

They wanted a lighter-touch system of assessment.

Respondents backing reform suggested changing the amount of exams, the volume of content in courses and changing the current emphasis on having to recall large amounts of information.

A common theme among those surveyed was a need for a broader range of GCSE alternatives, like vocational qualifications.

School leaders made comments including: "Because GCSES are now so content-laden and deliberately harder, they disenfranchise many students for whom these exams are just too daunting.

"This is leading to greater anxiety and mental health problems for these students."

One respondent said: "They are not accessible for many learners and this leads to a lack of engagement and limits their opportunities for future progression routes as they are not able to achieve and be successful.

"It can also lead to a detrimental impact on a young person's motivation and mental health as they view themselves as a failure."

Another said: "Basically any child who doesn't get a grade 4 (formerly a Grade C) gains no benefit and in the case of English and maths it can actually be a lifelong disadvantage."

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