23 August 2022

Blair’s proposal to scrap GCSEs is wrong, wrong, wrong


A new academic year has broken, has it not? And with it, inevitably, come the calls for GCSEs and A levels to be reformed or abolished outright. Following on from the recent Times Education Commission’s demand for a total ‘reset’ of education comes a similar call from former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The report, ‘Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England’, published by Blair’s Institute for Global Change, is similarly radical in its calls for changes to assessment.

I say ‘radical’, but actually the arguments put forward in the report, the language used, the unfounded claims made about what such changes can deliver, are all depressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the ‘skills vs knowledge’ debate over the years. The argument can be boiled down to something as simple, but as dangerously misleading, as this: our children are being assessed by an outdated system, and in order for them to thrive we need to change how they are taught and examined so they have the skills for the future workplace. Blair’s position is almost identical to his son’s who, earlier this year, also called for exams to be replaced by something more suited to a future nobody can predict.  

What is surprising about this report is that although it is keen to present itself as wired up to the cutting edge of educational thinking (the first paragraph of the Executive Summary includes mandatory buzzwords and phrases like ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and ‘AI’) as author and assessment expert Daisy Christodoulou has already argued, it is anything but original or progressive. Indeed, Christodoulou points out, rightly, that most of the arguments included in the report, like Blair himself, were the future once, but are now outdated. They are as cutting edge as microfiche and over-head projectors. 

If we are to reform schools then it has to be based on evidence that shows the outcomes work. To do otherwise would be to risk the future prospects of young people. None of the recommended reforms in Blair’s report do this. 

Take continuous assessment. The report argues for the replacement of GCSEs and A levels with a new qualification based on the International Baccalaureate (Blair’s love of the IB is long standing) that includes ‘multiple, rigorous forms of continuous assessment’. Leaving aside the fact that this is a misrepresentation of the IB diploma, which relies very heavily on final, highly demanding, examinations – continuous assessment is less fair than final examinations like GCSE and A level. How do we know this? Because we have gained two years of evidence which clearly shows how teacher-assessed grades distort outcomes, add significantly to the workload of teachers, result in huge grade inflation, and, worst of all, hit the poorest children the hardest.

But such is the hatred of examinations that the authors of the report would favour anything else instead, irrespective of the potential damage such changes could have. For them, schools ‘rely heavily on passive forms of learning focused on direct instruction and memorisation’. They remain completely unaware of how insulting this is to all teachers and pupils; and of course, they can never name a school, or a teacher, or a pupil, that actively does any of this – nor can they accept that direct instruction and memorisation are actually good things that help pupils learn. No, for them such qualities illustrate a ‘narrow set of methods and subjects’. So, instead of studying English, Maths, Science, as well as languages, the humanities, sport, music, and other subjects available at GCSE, Blair’s team would favour our children being taught the ‘4 Cs’: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving’.

Well, how do you solve a problem like creativity? The most effective way is through those terribly restrictive, repressive subjects like music, art, and any other subject which allows teachers to teach imaginatively and for pupils to learn actively (ie, all of them).  No GCSE specification stops any of the ‘4 Cs’ that Blair’s report claims they do.  Nor do examinations penalise those pupils who are good at all of these. Quite the reverse. But to admit this is, in certain corners of this particular liberal left echo chamber, is counter cultural. Better to make big claims that sound ‘futureproofed’ and empathetic, humane not Gradgrindian, rather than to admit that boring, old school-style exams work.

And, again, despite the claims in the report, there is no real evidence that employers want these changes. It is easy to trot out outliers like Richard Branson to claim that exams do not prepare pupils for the real world, but if you were hiring who would you shortlist? A pupil with certificates in collaborative learning and critical thinking (the grades decided by the school), or one with ten GCSEs and three A levels (the grades awarded by an exam board)? Or, to put it another way, who is more likely to benefit from either system: the middle class kids with lots of books at home and discussions over the dining room table about politics, economics and Hamlet, or the disadvantaged kids with little or no cultural capital? 

For that last group of pupils, education, and gaining a good set of qualifications which have been set and marked objectively and independently, is still the best route into university and, eventually, a career.  Luke Tryl, who has significant experience at both the Department for Education and Ofsted, states very clearly that Blair’s report amounts to no more than a ‘greatest hits of incredibly attractive sounding proposals’ but, fundamentally, they are a ‘mirage that would be toxic for social mobility’’.

If we want meaningful and lasting change that benefits our young people long into the future we should reject the outmoded, tired and tendentious arguments that characterise formal assessments and a knowledge-rich curriculum consisting of distinct disciplines as inherently damaging to future success. Under-resourced schools, poor teaching, bad policy, social disadvantage – these, rather than examinations, are the barriers to success. GCSEs and A levels are not perfect, and they can be improved, but they remain the foundation of a fair and accessible form of assessment. Things can only get better if we consign former Prime Ministers to the metaphorical school store cupboard, along with all the other ideas that also promised new dawns, but turned out to be nothing more than empty, costly, promises. 

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Dr David James is Deputy Head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.