GCSEs should be axed next year, ex-Education Secretary says

GCSEs should be axed next summer, the man who created the qualification has said.

Lord Kenneth Baker, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, said that the exam system is underpinned by the expectation that pupils are all spending roughly the same amount of time in school.

But the different rates of Covid-19 around the country has led to some children missing far more school than others which means there is “no level playing field of attendance” for pupils this year.

“It is a real muddle quite frankly,” Lord Baker told The Sunday Telegraph.

“It is so fractured, last week there was only 89 per cent attendance. You don’t know which 11 per cent didn’t turn up, you don’t know which lessons they missed or how long their seclusion was for.

“Because of that, there is no level playing field of attendance. An exam system has to always be based on the fact that all students are broadly expected to attend for the same number of hours.”

Kenneth Baker was education secretary in Margaret Thatcher's premiership

Credit: Joe Newman

Children in the north-west of England, where coronavirus rates have remained high, have missed far more school so far this academic year than their peers in the south and south-east.

Just one pupil in the year testing positive for Covid-19 can result in the whole year group – sometimes hundreds of students – being sent home to self-isolate for two weeks.

Lord Baker, who served as Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989, said it would be better to replace GCSE exams with “some form of moderated assessment” while A-levels should be replaced with teacher assessments while possibly retaining exams for English and Maths.

“I think a bit of pressure has to be placed on the Government to realise it’s not going to be fair to disadvantaged students to have exams next year,” he said.

“They have already missed so much and they are missing more now. What the Government ought to be doing is coming up with a Plan B and bringing it out as soon as possible.”

Earlier this week the Welsh Government announced their decision to cancel all exams on the basis that disruption caused by the pandemic has made it "impossible to guarantee a level playing field”.

Instead, pupils in Wales will undertake a series of assessments, some of which will be overseen by teachers while others will be externally marked but taken in the classroom.

Schools will be able to decide when pupils should take the tests. Last month, the Scottish education secretary John Swinney announced that National 5 exams – which are equivalent to GCSEs – will not go ahead next spring and that awards will instead be granted based on coursework and teacher judgement.

However, Downing Street has so far insisted that exams in England will go ahead next summer with a three week delay to allow for more teaching time.  

Lord Baker introduced the General Certificate of Education (GCSE) over two years, between 1986 and 1988, to replace the O-level and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) exams.  

He said that one way to improve things for pupils is to have good quality remote learning but added that it is currently “very questionable in many cases”.

Papers published this week by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said it is “not clear” that remote learning makes up for the social isolation that children feel at home.

International studies show that prolonged periods of remote learning  are “likely to result in poorer educational outcomes” for pupils, they noted.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why Ofqual and the government all agree they should go ahead next year.

"We are working closely with stakeholders on the measures needed to ensure exams can be held, and will set out plans over the coming weeks.”