This summer, young people all over the country will be sitting GCSE exams for the first time in three years. The absence of this milestone in our education system has led many to reflect on the continuing relevance of GCSEs and consider what- if anything- should replace it.

Therefore, now feels like the opportune time to look back to the birth of GCSE in the late 1980’s, and to remind ourselves of the assessment and qualifications landscape that existed before it.

What did we have before GCSEs?

Prior to GCSEs' introduction, there were two formats of national examination at age 16. The General Certificate of Education at Ordinary level, or O-level, had existed since 1951. These qualifications were administered by the exam boards, largely associated with universities, that also offered A-levels. Furthermore, they were targeted at high-attaining students (typically 20% of the entire cohort).

The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) had been available for a number of years with the aim of offering qualifications suitable for the next 40% of the cohort. Contrary to O-levels, CSEs were administered by regional bodies; unlike O-levels, schools had no choice of awarding body.

This two-tier exams framework reflected the broader education system of the time. O-levels were perceived to be qualifications for students attending selective (grammar and fee-paying) schools. Comparatively, CSEs were taken by secondary modern students who ‘stayed on’ into a fifth year of secondary education whilst many of their peers left at 15 with few, if any, qualifications.

Why did we move to one exam for all?

The amount of choice available to teachers and students was often bewildering. For example, in 1978 the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB, forerunner of AQA) offered 13 maths and additional maths O-levels with the number of young people entering each ranging from 1 to 27,000.

Furthermore, there was a significant variation of ‘mode 3’ CSE qualifications. Mode 3 CSEs were devised and operated by schools, with the results being moderated and approved by the regional board. A school could design an assessment, define content that best suited their students, and the local exam board would approve it and award grades.

To attempt some form of standardisation, the numerous exam boards used a norm-referencing approach when awarding qualifications. This meant that roughly the same proportion of students achieved each grade across years, subjects and boards. Broadly speaking, the system was designed so that around 60% of those entered achieved a pass grade at O- level.

However; with so much variety on offer and a lack of standardisation of curricula, there was a lot of variation between what a C in O-Level Maths, or any other subject, represented.

Times changed, so did exams.

The education landscape in England rapidly transformed during the 1970s. By mid-decade, GCE and CSE exam boards were working together on 16+ exams, essentially a single exam with a dual grading system. In most areas, comprehensive schools had replaced grammars and secondary moderns and the 11+ had all-but disappeared.

At the end of the decade, a sizable majority of 16 year olds sat some form of exam, and most of these young people were educated in a comprehensive system. The old model of a two-tier system of qualifications was no longer appropriate and calls for a single exam system had grown exceptionally louder.

So, what were the expectations for GCSE at its inception?

GCSEs were intended as the principle qualification sat by the majority of students at 16 that assessed their skills on a breadth of topics. They were to be criterion-referenced and stressed equality of opportunity by ensuring students were assessed on subject content to the same standard and at the same level of difficulty (with the exception of tiered papers).

A final thought is that we should recognise the significant achievements of students and their teachers in rising to whatever challenges the exams system of the day gives them. Whether now or forty years ago, national qualifications are hard-earned and richly deserved, and should be celebrated.

Everyone at AQi would like to wish all students the very best of luck with their exams.