What’s the point of GCSEs?

by therealityofschool

Now the age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has risen to 18, more people are understandably asking why we need exams at age 16.

16 is the correct age for pupils to move from doing a wide range of subjects to doing a narrower range. Pupils do not have the maturity or experience or learning to drop many subjects before then. They do not know, before this age, what they are capable of. They have not learnt enough for it to be sensible to drop core subjects like mathematics.

But 16 is a good age to start to specialise. To specialise in six subjects if they are doing the IB, three or four subjects at A-level or even specialise in one discipline if they are going into an apprenticeship. After the age of 16 the negative consequences of narrowing down the curriculum are outweighed by the gains in motivation which comes from studying a narrower range of subjects in more depth. Subjects they like and have chosen. Subjects which will often be the passport to a university course and a career.

So if it makes sense to move from, say, ten subjects to four at the age of 16, it must be important to have examinations in all these subjects. Examinations are necessary in order to persuade pupils to embed their learning in the long-term memory – to revise effectively. There is a big difference between the knowledge of a pupil who has attended lessons but has taken no exams and those who have been encouraged by the approach of a public exam to memorise the information.

Exams are necessary because for many pupils exams provide the motivation to concentrate, behave, work hard and learn. It is not hard to persuade most pupils that exams matter. Teachers who have taught non-examined courses will be completely aware of the issue. For many years I taught a non-examined RE class to sixth formers; it was always a struggle…for me and for them. But most grasp the importance of public exams for their futures.

Exams are important because they are a necessary qualification for moving to the next level. We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile. It is generally a bad idea to take a subject like A-level maths if one cannot get up to an A grade in the GCSE – you will struggle from day one. Before specialisation begins, you need to know that you stand a chance of succeeding in your chosen courses.

Exams at 16 are necessary.