Welsh GCSE reforms don’t go far enough – time to remove them

Words by Barry Mansfield – Director at Halcyon London International School in Marylebone

In light of the Welsh government’s changes to GCSEs – which include a slightly lower emphasis on exams, and a nod to the importance of digital skills – it is surely worth asking whether we could be braver. Can we finally admit that everything about this qualification is wrong? Or are our leaders too attached to the idea of a ‘Great British Education’ to accept the need for change? And what alternatives are there?

Over my career, I have had the privilege of working in many places around the world, and of learning with educators from many different cultures. For all the rich differences, there are some startling similarities woven into almost every educational system.

It is very rare, for example, to find any advanced, wealthy, nation openly admitting that its educational system might be unfit for purpose. Usually, the most humility one could hope for would be an admission that A.N. Other System may have benefits one could learn from. Consequently, it is vanishingly rare to find nimble, responsive, educational systems welcoming of change. I cannot recall even a chance of a moment when underlying philosophies about how we learn, and their resultant design principles, have changed in the U.K.

There is also a slightly awkward nativism about this, which leads many in this country to harbour the delusion that everyone else is envious of a Great British Education, whatever that might be. But we’re not alone: most developed nations feel the same way about their systems (ask your French friends), and so the understandings that underpin our various educational systems are often defended in a most unquestioning, incurious, way.

Fortunately, we all seem to err in the same direction, meaning that those of us who advocate for change have a reasonably homogeneous target to aim for. Even if you had never previously thought of schools as being industrial, Taylorist, production lines, everyone in the sector saw that Ken Robinson Ted talk, when he eviscerated our current approaches. No-one can say they were not warned, but that was 16 years ago and there’s still no real sign of substantive change.

This brings me to a second similarity between many school systems. Most tend to look on schools as they would traditional trades or cultural monuments – that there’s something so vital and essential about what we do (maybe to national identity, or cultural memory?) that all of it must be preserved. No-one thinks of school practice as having anything in common with the agility or imagination or the willingness to change of, say, a digital start-up, despite the obvious fact that many students aspire to be in just this kind of dynamic environment. 

This stasis is also underwritten by years of experience; the people who have the power to change education are products of it themselves, often being hugely successful at school before travelling, with relative ease, through the best universities and successful careers. Where is their incentive to say it doesn’t work? Outsiders – those let down by our education system – are without a serious voice, and their ‘failure’ can be conveniently ascribed to some lack of personal responsibility. It is a form of privilege not to have to question one’s own education.

It feels to me that GCSEs are almost the apotheosis of this failure of imagination. It would be hard to think of a less relevant or less useful qualification, or one that has failed so comprehensively to adapt to changing needs. It is also a testament to, and defender of, two particularly obvious untruths: firstly, that cramming knowledge, often presented entirely inauthentically and abstracted from real life, into one’s head and then repeating this data in an examination, is a meaningful preparation for the workplace and citizenship; and, secondly, that individuals own knowledge – to believe, falsely, that teachers can decant information into individual children and that because a child can then repeat this data, that they ‘own’ this knowledge or can make good use of it. 

The reality is that GCSEs are no more than a transaction. All that students will learn is a) how to take a test in order to access the next test, at 18; and b) how to be most efficient at gaming this system. The latter might be a useful skill in the real world, but let’s not kid ourselves that these examinations are worth more than that. They started life as a hybrid between two systems with different purposes – Grammar school GCEs, and Secondary Modern CSE’s – and their bureaucratic birth is forgotten, so long ago that most of us would struggle to find any rationale for them now. 

GCSEs are there because we lack the courage to admit we’ve lost our way, and that a system that maybe served a good purpose thirty years ago, is no longer useful. They are there because we still cannot find the will to change our A level system into something more modern, flexible, creative and relevant, and so we need the ‘backstop’ of GCSEs to fill-in the missing data of students’ experience at 18+. Maybe they are also still there because of a lingering chauvinism: that a solid ‘English’ education is better than something found elsewhere in the world. Certainly, we are encouraged in this erroneous view by the popularity of British universities, and the numbers of non-British families who send their children to English public schools. But this is to draw wrong conclusions from disconnected data.

It might also be true that our lack of courage in making change sits much deeper, beyond the rational. After all, if it were just about intellectual debate, surely we would have joined the dots by now.  Maybe, to make effective change we also need some emotional courage, too; to understand our unspoken biases and unfiltered constructions. For many of us, our sublimated understandings about, and emotional ties to, English school systems are very deeply embedded. 

Let’s take an obvious example; Hogwarts. It is one reason why Harry Potter works so well, because it functions as an instantly recognisable character, modelled on the kind of boarding school that upper-middle class parents aspire to. It has quintessentially English values that connect all the characters together, and the reader is drawn into this; we are not-so-subtly invited to indulge in incoherent imaginings of some idealised, romantic, traditional schooling, where it was so much better in the past. This is a fantasy, of course, but it is alive and well in our imaginations and is not a rational place. 

The past is tricky, and we tend to remove the blemishes and anxieties and mistakes we have made. School is sanitised in the same way, and as adults we quietly forget its inefficiencies and inequalities, and send our children back for more of the same, except that maybe we hope our experience will help us to game the system and get our children ahead.  We have to confront this communal, collective, amnesia and try to do better for our children. Abandoning GCSEs, and looking toward a broader, authentic, baccalaureate experience, founded on conceptual learning and prioritising skills’ development, would be a big step in the right direction.