GCSEs failing to prepare children for modern world, say private school heads

GCSEs should be overhauled because they fail to prepare children for the modern world, leading private school headteachers have said.

The current school curriculum is outdated and in danger of becoming irrelevant, according to a new report by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).

The organisation represents the country’s most prestigious public schools, including Eton College, Harrow and Winchester.

Historically, many private schools opted for IGCSEs because they saw GCSEs as too easy and not sufficient preparation for A-levels. 

However, in an attempt to make GCSEs more rigorous, ministers reformed the qualifications by removing most coursework and introducing a numerical grading system.

At a glance | Numerical GCSE grading

Now private school heads are calling for a restructure of the entire system – both GCSEs and IGCSEs – on the grounds that both have become outdated and no longer serve the needs of students.

The HMC report argues that more emphasis must be placed on children’s physical and mental health, as well as other skills such as oracy, data and digital literacy.

“There are significant concerns that our current education system is falling a long way short in offering a relevant education which promotes the breadth of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary for young people to thrive in the modern world,” the report says.

“The acquisition of knowledge and learning skills are clearly important, but more emphasis needs to be given to physical and mental health, alongside data and digital literacy, oracy, social and environmental skills, critical thinking and opportunities that encourage the development of ethical understanding, curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning.”

The report’s authors point out that far more is known about the teenage brain than when GCSEs were first introduced, arguing that neuroscientists should be involved in designing new qualifications to replace them.

Current system ‘lacks relevance’

The current exam and school system fails to motivate teenagers because it “lacks relevance”, HMC says. 

It adds that the curriculum is not sufficiently “responsive” to the needs of different students, including those from low income backgrounds and those with different cultural heritages and ethnicities.

GCSEs and iGCSEs are useful for university admissions tutors and employers to distinguish between candidates, the report says, but warns that they fail to encourage students’ development.

It suggests computerised tests, open book assessments and research projects could all be used as alternatives to GCSEs.

HMC conducted a survey of headteachers at state and private schools as well as academics, students, parents and business leaders. Ninety-four per cent believed GCSEs need either complete or partial reform, with 54 per cent calling for reforms to be implemented immediately.

Its report concludes that, because society has changed a great deal since exams and the curriculum were designed, “it is time for us to re-evaluate both our purpose in education and our approach to learning”.

Lord Baker, who created GCSEs when he was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, has previously called for the qualification to be axed in favour of “some form of moderated assessment”.

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

Richard Backhouse, the chairman of HMC and principal of the £35,600-a-year Berkhamsted School, said: “After what has been a tumultuous 18 months, teachers in both state and independent schools now want to focus on delivering the very best education they can to children who have experienced immense disruption to their schooling.

“This report outlines the clamour in the education sector to shape an education system which reflects the needs of 21st century Britain.”

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