Assessment

What Next for GCSEs?

The past, present and future of GCSEs

Foreword
Executive Summary
1. Introduction
2. What is the Purpose of GCSEs? 
3. GCSEs in England: Past and present
4. Evaluating GCSEs: Survey evidence
5. GCSE Reform: A review of key proposals 
6. Conclusion: What next for GCSEs?
Appendix: Five myths about GCSEs
References
Date02/10/21
AuthorJames Lloyd, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, AQA

Foreword

The debate over the future of GCSEs is too often polarised.

On one side you have the case for revolution - the argument that high-stakes exams at 16 are irrelevant and unnecessary in an education system where most students now stay until they’re 18. Advocates for the abolition of GCSEs on these grounds include Kenneth Baker, who introduced them in the first place.

On the other side, there’s the argument that the relatively recent Gove-Gibb reforms of GCSEs have raised standards and cut the attainment gap. It’s notable that people on either side include politicians from the same party who have been instrumental in establishing and evolving these exams.

And then came the pandemic, two years without exams, a wholesale temporary shift to teacher-assessed grades, and a consequent heightening of debate around how and why we measure student attainment at 16. 

It’s critical that, as we consider the future of GCSEs, we concentrate on what they’re for, and what they materially do. Fundamentally they are designed to reflect a student’s ability and provide a passport to the next stage of their life. In other words, they centre on the student.

Shouldn’t the voice of young people themselves be more prominent in this debate about the future of these qualifications – their qualifications?

That’s why, as part of our research for this report, we surveyed a thousand young people in England to find out how they feel about their GCSEs. Are they glad they did them? Have they helped them progress? Do they feel they assessed the right things?

The answers to those and many other questions give us a new, fascinating and sometimes surprising perspective on GCSEs.

Where the case is made for change, it’s important really to understand what problem we’re trying to solve.

Is assessment itself the issue – or is it really about the knowledge and skills we’re assessing? This report attempts to unpick those questions, so we can focus on the right answers.

As an exam board that provides more than half of all GCSEs, you’d be forgiven for expecting us to mount an un-equivocating defence of the status quo. 

But that’s not what you’ll find here. AQA is more than just an exam board. We’re an independent education charity and we’re here to do what’s best for our young people and help them realise their potential regardless of their background. We are therefore primarily interested in evaluating options and evidence, and if that leads to advocating change, then that’s what we’ll do.

This report is the first to be published on AQi: our brand new digital space dedicated to sharing insight, analysis, commentary and research about assessment and qualifications. We hope this exciting platform will become a community of industry experts with diverse perspectives and generate innovative ideas to shape the future of education.

Our aim isn’t to bolster the case for revolution or no change. Instead, we’ve looked at the advantages and disadvantages of some of the ideas that have been put forward so far. 

You’ll find an honest assessment of where GCSEs are working and where they need to change to better serve our young people.

I hope you find this report a useful contribution to a healthy debate that looks likely to run for a good while to come.

Colin Hughes, 

CEO, AQA

Executive Summary

Introduction

GCSEs have evolved considerably since their introduction as a universal qualification in the 1980s, taken by students from all walks of life. 

GCSEs have been consistently updated and adapted to the education policies of the day. Hundreds of GCSE specifications have been retired over the years in order to refresh subject content, tweak the design of assessments or because a subject is no longer included in the Key Stage 4 curriculum. 

The future of GCSEs has come under particular scrutiny in recent times in response to the cancellation of exams in 2020 and 2021, as well as debates about the future of employment and the role of summative assessment at 16.

However, debate on GCSEs is too often simplistic or motivated by concerns entirely divorced from GCSEs as qualifications, such as the impact of the school accountability system on teachers. 

Young people deserve an informed and balanced debate about the future of GCSEs, and one that gives voice to how they feel about their qualifications.

To support and inform debate on the future of GCSEs, this discussion paper sets out the key facts about the qualification and how GCSEs have evolved over time, explores the attitudes of the public and young people towards GCSEs, and reviews the trade-offs posed by key proposals for reform put forward by different stakeholders in the debate.  

What is the Purpose of GCSEs?

GCSEs mark the end of compulsory academic education in England, and are the summation of up to five years of learning across different subjects in secondary school – and in some subjects, learning extending to primary school. Following GCSEs, each cohort of students makes choices about what to do next and diverges across different academic, vocational and technical specialist pathways. 

GCSEs have the same core purpose as any other qualification. First, GCSEs measure learning and certify attainment. As a national qualification set by regulated exam boards, GCSEs allow a student’s grades to be reliably and directly compared to grades awarded to students at other schools and colleges, in different subject areas and in other cohorts.  

Second, GCSEs enable progression. The majority of students change institution at 16 (only 38% progress to their school’s sixth-form), and the widely understood and trusted status of GCSEs as a measure of attainment allows them to do this.

GCSEs in England: Past and present

In contrast to O-levels, GCSEs were introduced as a ‘universal’ qualification that could be entered by the vast majority of students, but with assessments that tested different parts of the ability range. 

Since 1988, the content and methods of assessment used in GCSEs have evolved significantly. The Ofqual qualification register records over 800 GCSEs that are no longer awarded in England having been either replaced by updated specifications, or with the subject removed from the Key Stage 4 curriculum. 

GCSEs are currently offered in 51 different subjects, ranging from Bengali and Business to Electronics and Engineering. The opportunity for students to access these subjects varies across different centres, with decisions on provision reflecting factors such as the availability of specialist teachers, as well as whether or not the centre prioritises subjects in the current government’s ‘EBacc’ measure of school performance.  

No two GCSEs are assessed in precisely the same way. Exam boards make use of multiple assessment methods taking account of the subject content and assessment objectives to ensure the assessments are as valid and reliable as possible. Less than half are assessed through written examination only. 

The total number of GCSEs awarded during the 2018-19 academic year in England was 5,109,800. The average cost to centres per student for GCSE entries was around £360. Public expenditure on externally assessing and certifying what students have learnt by the age of 16 therefore represents less than 2% of the cost of educating students over Key Stage 3 and 4. 

Alongside GCSEs, the Education and Skills Funding Agency offers funding for over 1,200 Level 2 qualifications for 14–16 year-olds, comprising academic, vocational and technical qualifications.

Evaluating GCSEs: Survey evidence

The value of GCSEs for students is determined by their ‘currency’ - i.e. the extent to which GCSEs are trusted and understood – as well as how students themselves feel about their qualifications and whether they support progression.  

The exams regulator, Ofqual, publishes an annual survey of public attitudes towards qualifications, including GCSEs. This polling suggests that GCSEs are well understood, trusted, considered good preparation for further study and are perceived to develop a broad range of skills for students. 

In order to evaluate young people’s attitudes towards their own GCSEs, a nationally representative survey was undertaken of around 1,000 young people in England who took their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017. A large majority reported they are glad that they took GCSEs, feel pride in their GCSEs, and report that their GCSE grades helped inform decisions about what to do next and to move forward to the next stage. The majority of young people also report that preparing for their GCSE exams helped motivate them and that taking GCSE exams helped prepare them for exams they took in subsequent years.

Many factors will determine the different ways that GCSEs can be of value to individual young people, and it is clear that there is variation among young people regarding their experience of GCSEs. Across multiple measures, young people who averaged grades D to G or 3 to 1 report less value and satisfaction from their GCSEs. For example, only two in five of this group report feeling pride in their GCSEs and nearly half say that GCSEs did not help them move forward to the next stage. 

GCSE Reform: A review of key proposals

Every qualification, or national system of assessment, represents a set of trade-offs and compromises in relation to assessment and reliability, and what students do and do not study. 

Proposals to change GCSEs range from small, subject-specific amendments to radical and sweeping changes, including for GCSEs to be scrapped completely. All proposals for reform of GCSEs come with both advantages and disadvantages.

Many proposals for reform of GCSEs actually involve changes beyond GCSEs, such as to the school accountability system, the overall school curriculum or the Department for Education’s policy of classifying certain GCSE grades as ‘pass’. Some proposals pull in different directions, for example, to have a compulsory academic curriculum until 18 and to offer students a wider vocational and technical education from 14. 

Given how GCSEs have evolved over the decades, many proposals would represent another ‘swing of the pendulum’, for example, to reintroduce more non-examined assessment or tiering in assessments.

Conclusion: What next for GCSEs?

GCSEs fulfil their core purpose of measuring attainment and enabling progress. GCSEs will and should continue to evolve, as they have done for decades, but there is not a strong case in support of radical or disruptive change. Implementing such change would undermine the value and benefits of GCSEs to millions of students and create significant additional workload for schools.

As a universal qualification at 16 in England, GCSEs need to work for as many young people as possible. However, given evidence that GCSEs are not providing the same value to all students, there is an important task for policymakers to understand why, and more research is needed. 

1. Introduction

Tens of millions of GCSEs have been awarded in England since the first GCSE exams in 1988. More adults in England have a GCSE than any other qualification. 

GCSEs have evolved considerably since their introduction in the 1980s as a universal qualification taken by students from all walks of life. 

GCSEs have been consistently updated and adapted to the education policies of the day. Hundreds of GCSE specifications have been retired over the years in order to refresh subject content, tweak the design of assessments or because a subject is no longer included in the Key Stage 4 curriculum, such as Leisure and Tourism.1

The future of GCSEs has come under particular scrutiny in recent times in response to the cancellation of exams in 2020 and 2021, as well as debates about the future of employment and the role of summative assessment at 16. 

Debate on GCSEs

All aspects of assessment and qualifications used in the English education system are routinely scrutinised and debated – and rightly so. 

However, debate on GCSEs is too often simplistic or motivated by concerns entirely divorced from GCSEs as qualifications, such as the effect of the school accountability system on teachers. 

Increasingly, debate on GCSEs has become unmoored from basic facts and involved the propagation of myths such as:

  • “GCSEs do not assess skills”
  • “GCSEs narrow the curriculum”
  • “GCSEs only assess students through written exams”
  • “GCSEs automatically fail a third of students”
  • “England is the only country in the world to assess students at 16”

In the Appendix of this report, we tackle each of these myths in turn. 

What Next for GCSEs?

Young people deserve an informed and balanced debate about the future of GCSEs, and one that gives voice to how they feel about their qualifications.

AQA is an education charity and the largest provider of GCSEs in England. To inform debate on the future of GCSEs, this report sets out the key facts about GCSEs, how GCSEs have evolved over time, explores public and student perceptions of the qualifications, and reviews the trade-offs posed by different reform options advanced in debate.

In section 2, the report reviews the core purpose of GCSEs as a qualification taken by hundreds of thousands of students each year.  

Section 3 explores the past and present of GCSEs: their history, the subjects currently offered, grading and entry patterns. 

In section 4, survey evidence is used to evaluate whether GCSEs are meeting their objectives, with an emphasis on the views of students who recently sat GCSE exams. 

Sections 5 provides a survey of the various proposals to change GCSEs in relation to content and assessment, as well as the role of GCSEs in the education system. 

In Section 7, the report concludes with key observations and recommendations for policymakers. 

2. What is the Purpose of GCSEs? 

Key points: 

  • GCSEs are the summation of up to five years of learning across different subjects in secondary school, before each cohort of students makes choices about what to do next and diverges across different specialist pathways
  • GCSEs have the same core purpose as any other qualification. GCSEs measure learning and certify attainment, allowing a student’s grades to be reliably and directly compared to others. GCSEs also enable progression. The majority of students change institution at 16, and GCSEs enable them to do this. 

2.1 Introduction

GCSE exams mark the end of compulsory academic education in England, and are usually the summation of up to five years of learning across different subjects in secondary school – and in some subjects, learning extending to primary school. Over half a million students in England enter for GCSEs each year. Following GCSEs, each cohort of students makes choices about what to do next and diverges across different academic, vocational and technical pathways, including A-levels, BTECs and apprenticeships. 

GCSEs touch upon many aspects of the wider education system, such as the school curriculum and the how the effectiveness of teaching in schools is measured.

However, as a qualification, GCSEs have the same core purpose as any other qualification. This is to: 

  • measure learning and certify attainment
  • enable progression.

2.2 Measure learning and certify attainment

Like any qualification, a GCSE is a measure of the attainment of knowledge and skills by students.

As a regulated, national qualification set by external exam boards, GCSEs provide a reliable and valid measure of attainment in relation to defined national standards and agreed subject content. 

This means that a student’s GCSE grade can be reliably and directly compared to GCSEs awarded to students: 

  • at other schools and colleges – including students at very different types of centre, such as independent schools and Further Education colleges
  • in different subject areas – for example, the level of attainment reflected by a grade 5 in GCSE History is directly comparable to a grade 5 in GCSE French
  • from other cohorts – the attainment indicated by a grade 5 awarded to a student from one cohort is directly comparable to a grade 5 awarded in a different year. 

2.3 Enable progression

GCSEs enable students to progress to the next stage of their lives, whether in education, apprenticeships or employment.

GCSEs are the primary school-leaving qualification in England. Most students leave their school at age 16 and change institution, using their GCSEs to apply to a Further Education college, Sixth Form college, an apprenticeship or other employment. 

Data collected by the Department for Education (DfE) for mainstream state-funded schools indicates that at the end of Key Stage 4:3 

  • 38% of students progress to their school sixth form
  • 37% change institution into the Further Education sector
  • 11% change institution to a Sixth Form College
  • 4% move into an apprenticeship
  • 3% move into employment. 

GCSEs enable progression at the end of Key Stage 4 because: 

  • GCSE grades are a widely understood indicator of relative student performance 
  • GCSEs grades are trusted by different users such as employers, Further Education colleges, etc. 

Indeed, an annual survey of public understanding of, and trust in, GCSEs shows these to be high, particularly relative to other qualifications, reflecting the universal nature of GCSEs in education.4 

2.4 Additional benefits

Besides their core purpose as a qualification, GCSEs provide a number of benefits to students as a qualification awarded at the end of compulsory academic education, and before they enter specialist pathways. These benefits include:

  • providing students with objective information on how they are doing – GCSEs inform students on how they are performing before entering Key Stage 5 and the final years of compulsory education
  • informing student choice – students use their GCSE results to make decisions around what to do next and how to specialise, for example, what subjects to study at Level 3
  • providing experience of external assessment - GCSEs provide students with experience in taking externally set assessments and exams before they reach the end of compulsory education. GCSEs prepare students for the high-stakes assessments that for most mark the transition at the end of Key Stage 5 to employment, Higher Education or Further Education.

Given most students enter for GCSEs in a broad academic core of subjects, GCSEs also provide students with flexibility, enabling them to ‘switch pathways’ at a subsequent stage in their education, for example, between academic and vocational routes. 

3. GCSEs in England: Past and present

Key points: 

  • GCSEs were introduced as a ‘universal’ qualification that could be entered by the vast majority of students 
  • Since 1988, the content and methods of assessment used in GCSEs have evolved significantly. Over 800 GCSEs are no longer awarded in England having been either replaced by updated specifications, or with the subject no longer offered
  • GCSEs are currently offered in 51 different subjects, ranging from Bengali and Business to Electronics and Engineering, although the opportunity for students to access these subjects varies across different centres
  • No two GCSEs are assessed in precisely the same way. Exam boards take account of subject content and assessment objectives to ensure assessments are as valid and reliable as possible. Less than half are assessed through written examination only 
  • The total number of GCSEs awarded during the 2018-19 academic year in England was 5,109,800. The average cost to centres per student for GCSE entries was around £360. Public expenditure on externally assessing and certifying what students have learnt by the age of 16 therefore represents less than 2% of the cost of educating students over Key Stage 3 and 4. 

3.1 Introduction

The characteristics of GCSEs and the GCSE exam system have evolved substantially since GCSEs were first awarded in 1988. This section provides an overview of the introduction of GCSEs and the operation of the GCSE system in England currently. The section explores: 

  • what is the history of GCSEs? 
  • how is GCSE subject content determined? 
  • what GCSE subjects are currently available?
  • how are GCSEs assessed? 
  • how are GCSEs graded? 
  • how many GCSEs are awarded each year? 

Given the exceptional circumstances of 2020 and 2021 when GCSE exams were cancelled, the data set out below is mostly taken from 2019.

3.2 What is the history of GCSEs?

Prior to the introduction of GCSEs, students were either entered for the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) or the more academically challenging O-Level (General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level). Some students entered for a combination of the two. 

The two qualifications were independent of each other and had different grading systems. 

However, over time, there was growing concern for O-Level students who failed their exams and did not receive a qualification at 16, as well as CSE students who were not given the opportunity to demonstrate higher academic ability. 

In response to such concerns, GCSEs were introduced as a ‘universal’ qualification that could be entered by the vast majority of students, but with assessments that tested different parts of the ability range. GCSE grading was for many years tied closely to student performance, but in order to tackle grade inflation, the ‘comparable outcomes’ approach to awarding was introduced, which balances student performance and statistically-based predictions.

Since 1988, the content and methods of assessment used in GCSEs have evolved significantly. As a result, the Ofqual qualification register records over 800 GCSEs that are no longer awarded in England having been either replaced by updated specifications, or with the subject no longer offered in the Key Stage 4 curriculum. 

In particular, the mix of assessment methods used in GCSEs over the years has changed considerably. For example, GCSEs historically used to feature considerably more coursework, which in some subjects, was felt to be an ‘authentic’ assessment of student performance. 

The most recent round of reforms to GCSEs in England saw the first sitting of examinations in brand new GCSE specifications in 2017, starting with Maths and English. Key changes applied to this round of reforms to GCSEs included the elimination of modular assessment, the removal of tiered papers in some subjects and the replacement of the A* to G grading system with 9 to 1 grading.

The effect of these and other changes in England over the years, as well as devolution in education policy, has been to create clear and marked differences in the assessment and grading of GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to the extent that these now represent substantively different qualifications that share only a name. 

3.3 How is GCSE subject content determined? 

For every GCSE that is offered to students in England, the Department for Education publishes approved:5

  • subject content – the knowledge and skills that must be covered in any GCSE qualification, for example, GCSE Mathematics, regardless of the exam board
  • assessment objectives and the relative weight of assessment and marks that should be given to them.

Exam boards take the approved subject content and assessment objectives set down by the Department for Education and use these to develop draft ‘specifications’ for GCSE qualifications. 

To gain accreditation and be able to offer a GCSE to centres, exam boards must submit to the exams regulator, Ofqual, a submission comprising a draft specification, an accompanying assessment strategy, as well as sample exam papers and their mark schemes. 

Each submission is reviewed by Ofqual against its ‘General Conditions of Recognition’, as well as qualification and subject-level regulatory conditions. If the submission is approved, exam boards can begin promoting the qualification and accepting entries. 

3.4 What GCSE subjects are currently available?

The Department for Education has approved content for 51 different GCSE subjects in England:6

Ancient historyElectronicsMathematics
Ancient languagesEngineeringMedia studies
ArabicEnglish languageModern Hebrew
AstronomyEnglish literatureMusic
BengaliFilm studiesPanjabi
Biblical HebrewFood preparation and nutritionPhysical education
BiologyFrenchPersian
BusinessGeographyPolish
Citizenship studiesGeologyPortuguese
Classical civilisationGermanPsychology
Combined scienceGreekReligious studies
ChemistryGujaratiRussian
Chinese (spoken Mandarin/Cantonese)HistorySociology
DanceItalianSpanish
Design and technology DramaJapaneseStatistics
EconomicsLatinTurkish
Urdu

GCSE subjects may be offered by more than one of the four exam boards that offer GCSEs in England. For example, all boards offer GCSE Maths so there are four different GCSE Maths qualifications for schools to choose from. In contrast, only one board offers GCSE Dance.

For this reason, the total number of individual GCSE qualifications available in England is 141. 

The opportunity for students to access these subjects varies across different schools and centres. Such decisions by centres regarding provision reflect a wide range of factors including resources, demand among students, availability of specialist teachers as well as whether or not the centre prioritises subjects in the government’s ‘EBacc’ measure of school performance.  

As a result, although centres have a choice of over 50 different GCSE subjects they can offer, students in individual centres typically choose from a considerably narrower range of subjects. 

3.5 How are GCSEs assessed?  

No two GCSEs are assessed in precisely the same way. Exam boards make use of multiple assessment methods taking account of the subject content and assessment objectives to ensure the assessments are as valid and reliable as possible.

The 141 different GCSEs listed in the Ofqual qualification register as being available in England use the following types of assessment:7

  • Written examination (136)
  • Oral examination (27)
  • Task-based controlled Assessment (27)
  • Aural examination (24)
  • Multiple choice (19)
  • Coursework (15)
  • Portfolio of evidence (8)
  • Practical demonstration/Assignment (5)
  • Practical examination (4)

The majority of GCSE qualifications use more than one type of assessment. Only 59 of the 141 GCSE qualifications available in England listed in the Ofqual qualifications register assess students using written examination only (42%), i.e. excluding approaches such as multiple choice or a portfolio of evidence. 

‘Tiering’ in a qualification effectively allows students to focus their studies on content that is more closely aligned to their ability. The number of tiered GCSE subjects was reduced following the most recent round of reforms to GCSEs, but is still applied to Maths and some Modern Foreign Languages. 

For tiered GCSEs, there is a Foundation Tier version and a more challenging Higher Tier version, with the former graded 5 to 1 and the latter graded 9 to 4. The content for the different tiers is aligned and centres must decide with their students which tier to enter for. 

3.6 How are GCSEs graded? 

The reformed GCSEs first awarded in 2017 are graded 9 (highest) to 1 (lowest), with this system replacing the old A* to G system. The 9 to 1 grading scale is not directly equivalent to A* to G, and a 9 is higher than an A*.8

This is not the first time that qualifications equivalent to GCSEs have used numbered grades. From 1963 to 1974, most exam boards used numbered grades 1-9, of which grade 1 was the highest and grade 9 the lowest, but these grades were not issued to students. Results which met the ‘Ordinary standard’ (grades 1-6) were recorded as Pass.

3.7 How many GCSEs are awarded each year?

The total number of GCSEs awarded during the 2018-19 academic year in England was 5,109,800, with the vast majority in the main summer exam series.9

The number of entries varies by subject. For example, in the main 2019 summer GCSE series, there were 720,098 entries for GCSE Mathematics, 244,401 for GCSE History, 89,577 for GCSE Spanish and 47,550 entries for GCSE Food and Nutrition.10

The ‘weighted’ average entry fee per GCSE in England in 2020 was £42.02.11 Analysis of 2016 data from the National Pupil Database found that the average (mean) number of GCSEs that students entered for was 8.6.12 This suggests that the average cost per student to centres for GCSE entries was around £360. 

Given the minimum per pupil funding levels from the government for 2020-21 have been set at £5,000 for secondary schools. This suggests the cost of GCSEs per head typically represents around 1.44% of total spending per pupil on their education across Key Stage 3 and 4. 

Put another way, the government spends a minimum of £25,000 per head educating children in England from 11-16, but less than £400 per head is spent to externally assess and certify what they have learnt at the end of five years of compulsory secondary education.  

3.8 What other qualifications do GCSE students take? 

Alongside GCSEs, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) currently offers funding for over 1,200 Level 2 qualifications for 14–16 year-olds comprising academic, vocational and technical qualifications.13 This includes: 

  • 23 Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs), which assess skills in Maths, English and ICT as applied to real-life situations
  • two Higher Project Qualifications (HPQs), which are taken by students who wish to undertake in-depth independent research into something about which they are passionate, usually alongside other pre-16 qualifications, both academic and vocational
  • hundreds of qualifications certifying vocational skills and life skills. 

There is insufficient publicly available data on entries to these qualifications among 14–16 year-olds to assess their take-up or their role in the life of Key Stage 4 students. 

Although some of these qualifications – such as Functional Skills Qualifications – have entries in the tens of thousands, others may not have any entries in this age-group, despite the availability of public funding. 

4. Evaluating GCSEs: Survey evidence

Key points: 

  • The value of GCSEs is determined by their ‘currency’ with the public and how students feel about their own GCSE qualifications 
  • An annual survey of public attitudes towards GCSEs published by Ofqual suggests they are well understood, trusted, considered good preparation for further study and are perceived to develop a broad range of skills for students
  • A survey of around 1,000 young people who took their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017 found that a large majority are glad they took GCSEs, feel pride in their GCSEs, and report that their GCSE grades helped inform decisions about what to do next and to move forward to the next stage. A majority of respondents also report that preparing for their GCSE exams helped motivate them and that taking GCSE exams helped prepare them for exams they took in subsequent years.
  • However, it is also clear that there is variation among young people regarding their experience of GCSEs and the value of GCSEs to them. Across multiple measures, respondents who averaged grades D to G or 3 to 1, report less value and satisfaction from their GCSEs. 

4.1 Introduction

GCSEs in England can be evaluated in many different ways. For example, the subject content of individual GCSEs that is determined by the Department for Education is routinely scrutinised and critiqued by subject associations and other groups to ensure alignment with the latest advances in different disciplines. From the point of view of assessment, the relative validity and reliability of GCSE assessments is continually evaluated by Ofqual and exam boards, in particular, using detailed data on how different types of assessment have performed each year.  

However, over and above these more technical criteria against which to evaluate GCSEs, it is important to evaluate GCSEs in terms of their value to students. This is shaped by: 

  • the relative ‘currency’ of GCSE’s, i.e. whether they are widely respected, trusted and understood as qualifications
  • how students themselves feel about their qualifications and whether the qualifications support their progression, for example, their choices about what to do next.  

This section summarises polling evidence on the currency of GCSEs undertaken by Ofqual. 

New polling research on young people’s attitudes to their GCSEs is then set out, exploring issues such as whether young people are glad they took GCSEs and whether their GCSEs informed their decisions about what to do next. 

4.2 Public attitudes to GCSEs

The exams regulator, Ofqual, publishes an annual survey of public attitudes towards qualifications, including GCSEs. 

Wave 18 of this survey was conducted between October and December 2019, and provides a useful snapshot of public attitudes toward GCSEs before the Covid-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of GCSE exams for two years.14

Overall, these results suggest the public has a positive view of GCSEs. The results show that around 60-70% of the public believe GCSEs: 

  • are well understood
  • are trusted
  • are good preparation for further study
  • develop a broad range of skills for students

It is notable that very few members of the public disagree with these statements. 


GCSEs are well understood by peopleGCSEs are trusted qualificationsGCSEs are good preparation for further studyGCSEs develop a broad range of skills for students
Strongly agree14%17%15%11%
Agree48%52%56%47%
Neither agree nor disagree18%17%15%20%
Disagree11%7%6%13%
Strongly disagree3%2%3%4%
Don't know7%5%5%6%

Ofqual’s survey of public attitudes towards qualifications also looks at wider issues relating to GCSEs. 

Around half of the public believe GCSEs offer value for money, but around one in ten (12%) disagree with this.  

Two in five (38%) of the public believe GCSEs are good preparation for work, but 15% disagree. 

Despite the application of the comparable outcomes approach to setting grade boundaries, only 37% of the public believe GCSE standards are maintained year-on-year, while 20% disagree. Similarly, 36% of the public believe GCSE marking is accurate, while 15% disagree. 

However, the considerable proportion of the public who neither agree nor disagree with such views, or don’t know what their view is, suggest that around half of the public do not feel sufficiently informed to make a judgement on such questions. 


GCSEs offer value for moneyGCSEs are good preparation for workGCSE standards are maintained year-on-yearThe marking of GCSEs is accurate
Strongly agree12%8%7%5%
Agree37%30%30%31%
Neither agree nor disagree26%24%27%29%
Disagree10%24%16%13%
Strongly disagree2%9%4%2%
Don't know13%6%17%20%

4.3 Young people’s attitudes to their GCSEs

In order to evaluate young people’s attitudes towards their GCSEs in England, AQA commissioned a representative survey of 1,001 young people in England.15

To ensure respondents had undertaken GCSEs in recent memory, but also had sufficient perspective on the impact their GCSEs had had on their progression, the sample was limited to those who took their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017. This meant that respondents took a mixture of old and reformed GCSEs, and had mostly left school by the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing cancellation of summer exams. 

The survey covered a number of themes, asking students whether they (strongly) agreed or disagreed with certain statements. 

In addition to gender, responses were broken down by attainment into three groups who reflect the typical distribution of GCSE grades: 

  • ‘Higher tier’ – around a third of respondents whose grades average A* to A or 9 to 7
  • ‘Middle tier’ – around half of respondents whose grades averaged B to C or 6 to 4
  • ‘Lower tier’ – around 10% of respondents whose grades average D to G or 3 to 1. 

Responses were also broken down by the type of centre that respondents attended: 

  • comprehensive
  • faith
  • private (independent/fee paying/boarding)
  • grammar.

I’m glad I took my GCSEs

Respondents were asked how strongly they agreed with the statement: “I’m glad I took my GCSEs.”

GenderGCSE grade tierType of School
TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp.FaithPrivateGrammar
Strongly disagree5%6%3%5%4%13%5%2%5%6%
Somewhat disagree6%7%5%4%6%11%5%10%3%8%
Neither agree or disagree15%16%14%9%15%29%14%17%16%17%
Somewhat agree29%26%31%31%27%30%27%37%28%30%
Strongly agree45%43%47%49%48%17%47%34%46%39%
Don't know1%1%*2%1%01%02%*
NET: Agree73%69%78%80%75%47%75%71%74%69%
NET: Disagree11%13%8%9%9%24%10%12%8%14%

Overall, around three quarters of respondents (73%) agreed with this statement while around one in ten disagreed. 

Males were less positive than females, and the proportion who disagreed with this statement was notably increased (24%) in the ‘lower tier’ attainment group. 

There was little difference among respondents by school type. 

I feel pride in my GCSEs

Respondents were then asked how strongly they agreed with the statement: “I feel pride in my GCSEs.”



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree7%8%5%4%5%18%7%2%6%5%
Somewhat disagree9%8%10%3%11%17%10%9%5%7%
Neither agree or disagree17%21%14%11%19%27%18%20%14%17%
Somewhat agree30%27%33%31%31%18%30%26%29%29%
Strongly agree37%35%38%51%33%21%34%41%45%41%
Don't know****1%0*1%1%*
NET: Agree66%62%71%82%64%38%65%67%74%71%
NET: Disagree16%16%15%7%16%35%17%11%12%12%

Two-thirds of students agreed with this statement, with females slightly more likely to agree than males.

Variations in responses according to attainment were clear. Over four-fifths of students in the higher attainment group agreed with the statement. However, in the lower tier group, only one in three respondents agreed and a similar proportion disagreed. 

There was little difference among respondents by school type. 

Preparing for my GCSE exams helped motivate me

Turning to other benefits for students, respondents were asked how strongly they agreed with the statement: “preparing for my GCSE exams helped motivate me.” 



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree13%15%10%13%10%20%11%15%14%18%
Somewhat disagree16%16%15%11%17%21%17%19%7%10%
Neither agree or disagree21%22%20%15%23%22%22%13%13%19%
Somewhat agree28%26%31%34%28%16%28%34%30%29%
Strongly agree22%21%24%26%21%19%21%19%36%24%
Don't know1%1%1%01%2%1%01%*
NET: Agree51%47%54%60%49%34%48%53%66%53%
NET: Disagree28%31%25%25%27%42%29%34%20%28%

Overall, around half of respondents agreed with this statement, but around two in five of the lower tier attainment group disagreed with this statement. 

At around two thirds (66%), respondents who took their GCSEs at private schools were notably more likely to agree with this statement. 

Taking GCSE exams helped prepare me for exams I took in subsequent years

GCSE exams act as a preparation for exams that students may take at the end of Key Stage 5 and beyond. 

The survey therefore asked respondents how strongly they agreed with the statement: “taking GCSE exams helped prepare me for exams I took in subsequent years.”



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree10%10%9%9%9%15%9%11%9%15%
Somewhat disagree14%16%12%13%13%24%15%18%5%13%
Neither agree or disagree17%16%18%13%17%25%17%16%17%15%
Somewhat agree33%33%34%34%36%19%35%27%32%30%
Strongly agree26%25%27%31%25%16%23%28%37%26%
Don't know1%*1%*1%1%1%001%
NET: Agree59%57%61%65%60%35%58%56%69%56%
NET: Disagree24%27%21%22%22%39%24%28%14%28%

Around three in five (59%) respondents said that their GCSE exams helped prepare them for exams they took in subsequent years. 

There was little difference between males and females, but once again, a substantial minority – around two in five – in the lower tier attainment group disagreed with this statement.  

At around four in five (69%), the proportion who agreed with this statement among respondents who attended private schools was notably higher than for other school types, possibly reflective of the kinds of progression routes taken by these young people. 

Receiving my GCSE grades helped to motivate me in the next stage of my studies

In receiving their GCSE grades, students may be encouraged by their results or motivated to do better in the next stage of their studies. 

Respondents were therefore asked to what extent they agreed with the statement: “receiving my GCSE grades helped to motivate me in the next stage of my studies.”



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree8%8%6%6%6%19%7%10%7%9%
Somewhat disagree13%13%12%10%13%17%14%9%6%10%
Neither agree or disagree16%17%16%10%18%25%16%20%14%17%
Somewhat agree35%34%36%36%37%20%37%26%38%32%
Strongly agree28%26%29%38%24%19%25%34%36%31%
Don't know1%1%*1%**1%1%0*
NET: Agree63%61%65%75%61%39%61%60%74%63%
NET: Disagree20%21%19%15%20%36%22%19%12%19%

Over three-fifths (63%) of respondents agreed with this statement, but one in five disagreed. 

While three-quarters in the higher tier attainment group agreed with this statement, this dropped to around two-fifths (39%) in the lower tier attainment group, among whom a similar proportion (36%) disagreed. 

Around three in four respondents (74%) who attended private school for their GCSEs reported that they agreed with this statement, which was notably higher compared to other school types. 

My GCSE grades helped inform my decisions about what to do next

Most young people change institution at 16 as they finish their compulsory academic education and take decisions about how to specialise. One benefit of receiving GCSEs for students is to help inform those decisions. 

Respondents were asked how strongly they agreed with the statement: “my GCSE grades helped inform my decisions about what to do next.”



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree9%9%9%7%8%21%9%12%10%8%
Somewhat disagree14%14%14%10%15%22%14%15%10%12%
Neither agree or disagree18%19%18%17%18%22%19%11%14%25%
Somewhat agree33%33%33%36%34%18%33%30%34%32%
Strongly agree25%24%26%29%24%15%24%29%31%23%
Don't know1%1%***3%1%3%00
NET: Agree58%57%59%66%58%33%57%60%65%54%
NET: Disagree24%23%24%17%23%42%24%27%21%20%











Around three in five respondents (58%) agreed that their GCSE grades helped to inform their decisions about what to do next, and around one quarter (24%) disagreed with this statement. 

There was little difference among respondents by school type or attainment group, except among the lower tier attainment group among whom only one-third agreed but two in five (42%) disagreed. 

My GCSE qualifications helped me move forward to the next stage

A core purpose of GCSEs is to enable progression and to support students in moving to the next stage of their education and career. 

Respondents were therefore asked how much they agreed with the statement: “my GCSE qualifications helped me move forward to the next stage.”



Gender
GCSE grade tier

Type of School



TotalMFHigherMiddleLowerComp. Faith PrivateGrammar


   
  

 
Strongly disagree7%8%6%3%6%24%8%6%4%9%
Somewhat disagree11%14%7%6%11%21%10%12%8%12%
Neither agree or disagree14%14%13%11%15%14%14%20%10%11%
Somewhat agree35%32%38%36%37%23%35%31%32%37%
Strongly agree33%31%35%44%31%18%33%31%43%31%
Don't know1%1%**1%0*03%*
NET: Agree68%64%73%80%67%41%68%63%75%67%
NET: Disagree18%22%14%9%17%45%18%18%12%21%

Over two-thirds of respondents (68%) agreed with this statement. Among the higher tier attainment group, four in five respondents agreed with the statement, but less than half (41%) in the lower tier group agreed, and 45% disagreed. 

4.4 Conclusion

As noted at the start of this section, the value of GCSEs to students is shaped by their ‘currency’ with the public. Polling of the general public suggests that GCSEs are well understood, trusted, considered good preparation for further study and are perceived to develop a broad range of skills for students. 

Among young people with recent experience of completing GCSE exams, a large majority are glad that they took GCSEs, feel pride in their GCSEs, and report that their GCSE grades helped inform decisions about what to do next and to move forward to the next stage. 

The majority of young people also report that preparing for their GCSE exams helped motivate them and that taking GCSEs helped prepare them for exams they took in subsequent years. 

However, it is also clear that there is variation among young people regarding their experience of GCSEs and the perceived value of GCSEs to them. 

Across multiple measures, respondents in the lower tier attainment group, who typically achieved grades D to G or 3 to 1, report less value and benefits from their GCSEs. For example, only two in five of this group report feeling pride in their GCSEs and nearly half say that GCSEs did not help them move forward to the next stage of their lives. 

In short, although GCSEs have clear value for the majority of young people, this value appears to be lower among those who attain lower GCSE grades. 

Why is this the case? Many factors will determine the value that GCSEs provide to young people, relating to the individual student, their centre, what they do after they receive their grades, as well as the actual design of the qualifications. A wide range of factors may explain such variations and it is important not to simply assume that lower levels of attainment cause GCSEs to have lower value to students. 

The fact that some students report lower benefits of GCSEs may reflect their characteristics before receiving their grades. For example, young people who experience consistently low levels of motivation may simply not be motivated or engaged by the prospect of sitting GCSEs. 

Variations in the value of GCSEs to different students will also be shaped directly by differences in what they do next. For example, if young people in the lower tier group for attainment are unable to progress as they wish because they have not met course entry requirements in Maths and English, such barriers to their progression will reduce the value of their GCSEs to them. 

Contextual factors may also be crucial. For example, the value that GCSEs provide in informing decisions about what to do next will be mediated by the pastoral support and careers advice available to students at a particular centre.

Overall, as a ‘universal’ qualification that replaced O-Levels and is taken by students from all walks of life, it is no surprise that the value of GCSEs to young people will not be same for all. 

Nevertheless, it is important for policymakers to understand such variations and consider how the value of GCSEs to all young people can be maximized. 

Interest in how to ensure GCSEs are valuable to all young people motivates many of the proposals for how GCSEs, as well as the Key Stage 4 curriculum, should be changed in future. These and other proposals are therefore reviewed in the next section. 

5. GCSE Reform: A review of key proposals 

Key points: 

  • Every qualification, or national system of assessment, represents a set of trade-offs and compromises 
  • Proposals to change GCSEs range from small, subject-specific amendments to radical and sweeping changes, including for GCSEs to be scrapped completely
  • All proposals for reform of GCSEs come with both advantages and disadvantages
  • Many proposals for reform of GCSEs actually involve changes beyond GCSEs, such as to the school accountability system, the overall school curriculum or the Department for Education’s policy of classifying certain grades as ‘pass’
  • Given how GCSEs have evolved over the decades, many proposals would represent another ‘swing of the pendulum’, for example, to reintroduce more non-examined assessment or tiering in assessments. 

5.1 Introduction

No qualification, or national system of assessment, is perfect. Each represents a set of trade-offs and compromises in relation to assessment and reliability, and what students do and do not study. Different countries use their qualification systems in different ways. 

Since the first exams in 1988, GCSEs have changed and evolved significantly, and are likely to do so again in future, not least to update content in line with advances in science and knowledge, developments in assessment practice and changing societal norms, for example, expectations regarding the historical themes that students should study in GCSE History. 

GCSEs are a ‘universal’ qualification in education and embedded across different aspects of the school system. This is reflected in a continuous flow of commentary and critique regarding GCSEs from within and outside the education system. Proposals to change GCSEs range from small, specific amendments to subject content, to radical and sweeping changes, including for GCSEs to be scrapped completely. 

This section surveys some of the key proposals to reform GCSEs put forward by stakeholders in the debate, for example, by politicians or academic researchers. It sets out key critiques that have been made about GCSEs relating to curriculum, assessment and grading, as well as regarding the role of GCSEs in the education system. For each critique, key proposals that have been put forward are summarised and the pros and cons of each are identified.

The survey of proposals also includes research findings relevant to different proposals taken from questions deployed in survey research of young people – described in the previous section – who took their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017. 

5.2 Curriculum

“GCSE specifications have too much content for students and teachers to cover”

Proposal: Reduce the volume of content in GCSE specifications across the board. 

Pros: 

  • Less pressure on students and teachers
  • More accessible to the full ability range
  • More scope for teachers to focus on understanding concepts in depth, rather than focusing on covering the broad content
  • Students may be able to access a broader Key Stage 4 curriculum whether through entering for more GCSEs or taking non-GCSE qualifications
  • More capacity to develop the wider curriculum, allowing the development of learners’ interests and talents. 

Cons:

  • Eliminating content from existing specifications could risk a loss of trust in individual qualifications, accusations of ‘dumbing down’, etc.
  • Some students may not be stretched or reach their full potential
  • Students may be unprepared to progress to Level 3 qualifications owing to gaps in their knowledge
  • Reforming GCSEs to reduce the volume of content will inevitably be a costly and disruptive exercise for the school system.

Proposal: Reduce the number of GCSEs students typically enter for. 

 Pros: 

  • Students have more time to study for qualifications in non-GCSE subjects, as well as developing interests and talents that are not examined
  • Preserves the standard of individual GCSEs.

Cons: 

  • Students may learn less overall 
  • Student choices at 14 may narrow the pathways later available to them and some students may regret their choices
  • Inequalities may widen within national cohorts in relation to academic achievement, widening educational inequalities.

Among young people who took GCSEs during 2016 and 2017, two in five (39%) agreed with the statement “looking back, I think the number of GCSEs I took was too many.” This figure was 42% among the ‘highest third’ in attainment, but 36% among the ‘lowest decile’ group, suggesting relatively little difference across different types of students. 

“A broader range of knowledge and skills should be assessed than those found in the core academic GCSEs most students take currently, including skills relevant to employment”

Proposal: (Re)introduce more vocational and applied GCSEs, in addition to current GCSEs in subjects such as Electronics or Food and Nutrition.

Pros: 

  • Having a range of academic, applied technical and vocational GCSE routes available may engage students not excited by traditional academic subjects
  • Students who may struggle to attain a grade 4 or above in a traditional academic subject may be able to attain a higher grade in other subjects, such as Electronics or Music
  • Progression to Level 3 vocational and technical qualifications may be smoother.

Cons: 

  • Risks to social mobility if students perceived to be non-academic by themselves, teachers, peers or family members are steered into vocational routes
  • Provision and uptake of new GCSEs may be limited or patchy, as shown with existing GCSEs, such as GCSE Electronics, and centres may continue to prioritise EBacc subjects given their status.

Proposal: Introduce the assessment of ‘soft skills’ into GCSEs, such as communication, team work, problem-solving and creativity.

Pros: 

  • Students certified for aptitudes and capabilities relevant to employment, and schools encouraged to focus on developing these skills
  • Non-academic or low attaining students afforded more opportunity to attain higher grades. 

Cons: 

  • Reliability of relevant assessment may be lower than for other types of knowledge and skills assessed by GCSEs
  • Increased burden of teacher assessment given the limited scope to assess soft skills through external examination. 

Among young people who took GCSEs during 2016 and 2017, three fifths (61%) said they agreed with the statement “I wish my GCSEs had assessed me in skills like teamwork or communication rather than just academic subjects.” There was little variation in response among different groups.

Proposal: Increase the breadth of Level 2 qualifications students enter for, e.g. VTQs, Higher Project Qualifications and certificates of achievement through changes to the school accountability system and greater support for non-GCSE qualifications.

Pros: 

  • More opportunity for students to achieve qualifications or certificates that present a holistic picture of their abilities and achievements, rather than just in relation to core academic subjects
  • Students have more flexibility to select a route that suits their interests and career aspirations
  • Students may potentially be more engaged with a curriculum that they see as relevant to the world around them
  • Students who are unlikely to gain a Grade 4 or above in an academic GCSE will gain a sense of achievement and self-worth from being good at something.

Cons: 

  • Risks to social mobility if students perceived to be non-academic by themselves, teachers, peers or family members, are steered away from academic GCSEs
  • Risks that students with low-currency non-GCSE qualifications may struggle to progress or compete with students who have entered for a substantial number of GCSEs
  • Despite availability of the qualifications, provision may be limited or patchy, as shown with existing GCSEs in Electronics, etc and centres may continue to prioritise EBacc subjects given their status.

Proposal: Widen the scope of the EBacc school performance measure to include non-academic subjects or an extended project qualification (EPQ).

Pros: 

  • Schools may diversify the provision of Key Stage 4 qualifications, increasing the options for students
  • Some students may have more opportunity to access content they find engaging.

Cons: 

  • Changes the status, meaning and currency of the EBacc, potentially undermining its purpose and value for students. 

“GCSEs encourage students to ‘teach to the test’ rather than engender deeper knowledge and understanding of content”

Proposal: Scrap or reduce the scope of the school accountability system.

Pros: 

  • Changing the high-stakes nature of GCSE outcomes for centres, because of the accountability system, may encourage teachers to focus less on grade outcomes and more on providing a rounded, deepened understanding of content. 

Cons: 

  • Lost benefits of the school accountability system in terms of providing information to students and parents. 

5.3 Assessment

“The duration of GCSE exams mostly spread over two papers is too long”

Proposal: Reduce the number of papers sat for GCSEs and/or their duration.

Pros: 

  • Less pressure on students 
  • Less disruption to schools from a shorter exam timetable.

Cons: 

  • Less time in the examination hall will result in less evidence to determine student marks, and fewer total marks will be available, reducing the reliability of the assessment 
  • More students will be close to a grade boundary, unless the number of grades is also reduced. 

Among young people who took GCSEs during 2016 and 2017, 29% agreed with the statement “GCSEs were too hard for people like me”. One quarter (23%) in the ‘highest third’ group attainment agreed with the statement, but this rose to 53% in the ‘lowest decile’ group. 

“High-stakes terminal GCSE exams place too much pressure on students”

Proposal: Introduce modular exams into GCSE specifications.

Pros: 

  • Less risk that a ‘bad day’ will affect student grades.

Cons: 

  • Students subjected to high-stakes assessment throughout course may experience higher levels of stress overall
  • Being repeatedly required to undertake revision and exam preparation, rather than covering content, may ultimately hinder learning and reduce the level of knowledge and skills students acquire. 

“The ‘snapshot’ nature of written GCSE exams doesn’t provide a rounded picture of what students can do and how they have performed over their course”

Proposal: Increase the role of non-examined assessment (NEA) in GCSEs, reducing the role of written exams.

Pros: 

  • Less pressure on students focused on high-stakes terminal exams
  • Reduced impact of a ‘bad day’ impacting overall grade
  • In certain skills-based subjects in particular, NEA arguably provides a more authentic assessment of what a student knows and can do.

Cons: 

  • Teachers will have to spend more time doing assessments and less time teaching
  • Ensuring consistency of marking and assessment is more challenging than for terminal exams, particularly if external examiners required for moderation are themselves engaged in teaching
  • The most reliable model of assessment for a lot of content may be examination. 

Proposal: Introduce unmoderated teacher judgements in determining GCSE grades. 

Pros: 

  • Potentially less pressure on students focused on high-stakes terminal exams.

Cons: 

  • Teachers will have to spend more time doing assessments and less time teaching
  • Research suggests that some teacher judgements may be subject to bias
  • In the absence of moderation, grades will not be comparable across centres or subjects, undermining the value of qualifications to students
  • Teachers may be subject to inappropriate pressure from parents or senior leaders to increase marks
  • No evidence teachers want to undertake more assessment.

“GCSE exams are too difficult for low attaining students and undermine their confidence”

 Proposal: Reduce the difficulty of GCSE assessments.

Pros: 

  • Potential for improved experience, engagement and confidence for lower- attaining students.

Cons:

  • GCSE exams may differentiate less well among more able students
  • Less opportunity for higher-attaining students to show what they are capable of
  • Risk of accusations that GCSEs have ‘dumbed down’, undermining their currency for all students.

Proposal: Widen the use of tiering across GCSE specifications.

Pros: 

  • A tiered assessment can more effectively differentiate between students
  • Potentially improved learning experience for both lower and higher-attaining students, with content and teaching more suited to their ability 
  • Potentially improved assessment experience, particularly for low attainers who may be at risk of only scoring a few marks on a paper. 

Cons:

  • Some students will always be misplaced in the lower or higher tier
  • Students entered for lower tier specifications across the board may feel labelled as less able 
  • More challenging for centres to deliver two teaching plans per subject, particularly if numbers entering for higher and lower tiers are imbalanced.

“Pen-and-paper GCSE assessments are old-fashioned and anachronistic in the digital age”

Proposal: Convert all GCSE assessments to on-screen assessment.

Pros: 

  • Improved experience for ‘digital native’ students who struggle with pen-and-paper 
  • Enables innovation in assessment models, such as adaptive assessments 
  • Reduce the time required for marking and awarding by 2-3 days

Cons:

  • Potential disadvantage for students with poorer IT skills, limited access to IT in the home environment, parents who do not work with computers, etc, with the potential to widen inequalities in attainment and reduce social mobility
  • Cost of introducing and servicing secure and reliable necessary IT systems in centres may be significant, and prevent public expenditure on other areas of the education system.

5.4 Grading

“GCSE grade boundaries are too close together meaning too many students are on the borderline between grades”

Proposal: Reduce the number of GCSE grades. 

Pros: 

  • Fewer students will be on the borderline between two grades so at risk of receiving the wrong grade. 

Cons: 

  • Less differentiation between students, potentially reducing the usefulness of GCSEs as qualifications for employers, colleges and Higher Education bodies
  • Impact of misgrading is higher. 

“GCSE grades convey too much reliability given the inevitable limits to marking reliability and subjective nature of marking in certain assessment types”

Proposal: Replace GCSE grades with marks/’scaled scores’.  

Pros

  • Provides more granular information about student performance
  • Allows end users to set their own thresholds.

Cons

  • Simplicity of grades replaced with more complex information
  • Misleading to end users, particularly in relation to essay-based subjects, as it suggests a level of precision in marking and grading that is simply not achievable.

Proposal: Report results with details of statistical uncertainty, i.e. confidence intervals.

Pros:

  • Acknowledges the imprecision in the grades/scores achieved and enables end users to factor this in to their decision making.

Cons:

  • Simplicity of grades replaced with more complex information
  • Public understanding of confidence intervals is low so could cause confusion among grade users.

“One-third of students automatically fail their GCSEs”

Proposal: Scrap DfE guidance regarding grade 4 being a ‘standard pass’.

Pros: 

  • Employers and other grade users required to engage with actual specifications to understand what knowledge and skills students have achieved – for example, by having reference to grade descriptors – leading to a richer understanding of student capabilities.

Cons: 

  • Some employers and other bodies may not invest time in understanding grade descriptors, etc. 

Proposal: Scrap the use of the ‘comparable outcomes framework’ in setting GCSE grade boundaries.

Pros: 

  • Fewer students would receive grades designed as ‘fail’ by the Department for Education given likelihood of grade inflation over time.

Cons:

  • Would be difficult to ensure comparability of standards between years, with the result that GCSEs could lose public trust and their currency, with the result that their value to students could be reduced
  • Increases chances of comparability issues across awarding organisations.

5.5 The role of GCSEs in the education system 

“Too many students are locked into a cycle of GCSE Maths and English resits”

Proposal: Scrap the rule requiring students with grade 3 in GCSE Maths or English to resit in order to obtain public funding for their post-16 studies.

Pros: 

  • Teachers can exercise judgement re: which students can achieve a grade 4 on resitting or would be better to focus on Functional Skills Qualifications or other alternatives
  • Time and resource expended on fulfilling resit rule could be used for other types of learning.

Cons:

  • Some students who could achieve a grade 4 or above on upon resitting GCSE Maths or English would not do so.

“The school accountability system, based on GCSEs, places too much pressure on teachers and students”

Proposal: Reform, replace or scrap accountability measures such as Progress 8, Attainment 8 and the EBacc.

Pros:

  • Students and teachers may feel less pressure, improving engagement with GCSE studies.

Cons

  • Risk of reduced information available to students, parents and policymakers. 

“The EBacc is narrowing the choice of subjects available to students and the range of subjects entered for”

Proposal: Reform or scrap the EBacc measure.

Pros: 

  • Centres may offer a greater range of GCSE subjects
  • Students may have more scope to enter for subjects they are passionate about or interested in, as opposed to those they are directed to take by their centre. 

Cons: 

  • Risks to social mobility if students perceived to be non-academic by themselves, teachers, peers or family members, are steered away from academic GCSEs
  • Given challenges for centres in diversifying GCSE subject provision, such as cost and the availability of specialist teachers, any widening of choice for students may be limited. 

“Age 14 is too early for students to make decisions around what to study”

Proposal: Make the EBacc GCSEs compulsory for all.

Pros: 

  • Simplicity
  • Enhances social mobility by ensuring no students are (dis)advantaged by choosing some subjects over others.

Cons: 

  • Lack of choice for students who may feel ready to choose at 14
  • Reduced opportunity for students to engage with material and content they enjoy, potentially increasing, disengagement lack of motivation and reducing the opportunity for some students to attain success in a pathway that is right for them
  • Progression to specialist pathways, such as Level 3 vocational pathways, may become more difficult
  • Negative consequences for subject areas excluded from the list of compulsory subjects given few students may be ready to take Level 3 qualifications in them, with knock-on consequences for entries to relevant HE courses. 

Proposals: Replace GCSEs with an academic Baccalaureate certificate at 16.

Pros: 

  • Potentially improved experience for lower-attaining students given difference in approach to grading. 

Cons: 

  • Lack of choice for students
  • Baccalaureate certificates have little currency, trust or understanding compared to GCSEs. 

“External assessment should only take place at the end of compulsory education when students are 18”

Proposal: Scrap compulsory external, summative assessments at 16.

Pros:

  • Less pressure on students
  • Less cost for the education system.

Cons: 

  • Given most students change institution at 16, some new form of qualification would be required to enable progression
  • Students would have no qualifications in subjects they have spent five years studying, or the feelings of pride and achievement that accompany attaining a qualification
  • Students given less information to make choices for the next stage of their education
  • Students who perform badly in their Level 3 qualifications, or wish to change pathways, do not have GCSE qualifications to fall back on or show what they are capable of
  • Students would not have the second chance currently provided by Key Stage 5 qualifications following GCSEs to improve their performance. 

5.6 Discussion

Debate on GCSEs is sometimes characterised by claims that particular ideas or proposals represent simple ‘fixes’, with no downsides. 

In fact, as this review of key proposals for reforming GCSEs across curriculum, assessment and grading has shown, all proposals come with both advantages and disadvantages. 

Given how GCSEs have evolved over the decades, many proposals would represent another ‘swing of the pendulum’, for example, to reintroduce more non-examined assessment or tiering in assessments that were removed in the most recent round of reforms to GCSEs. 

Some proposals also pull in different directions, for example, to have a compulsory academic curriculum until 18 and to offer students a wider vocational and technical education from 14.

It is also clear that many proposals for reform of GCSEs actually involve changes beyond GCSEs, such as to the school accountability system, the overall school curriculum or the Department for Education’s policy of classifying certain grades as ‘pass’.

6. Conclusion: What next for GCSEs?

This report has examined the purpose of GCSEs, their history and current provision, evidence on public and young people’s attitudes to GCSEs, as well as reform proposals relating to curriculum, assessment and grading. 

On the basis of the analysis and evidence in this report, a number of conclusions can be drawn. 

  • GCSEs fulfil their core purpose of measuring attainment and enabling progression 

As a universal qualification awarded to millions of people in England since the 1980s, GCSEs are trusted and understood by the public. Most young people are proud of their GCSEs, feel glad for having taken them, and report a range of benefits relating to their choices and progression. 

  • GCSEs will and should continue to evolve, as they have done for decades, but there is not a strong case in support of radical or disruptive change 

GCSEs have been adapted and changed repeatedly over the years with different generations of policymakers turning the ‘control dials’ on variables such as subject content, the role of examined vs. non-examined assessment, grading systems, use of tiering and level of difficulty.

However, there is no compelling argument in favour of implementing radical or disruptive change. While many proposals for reform of GCSEs have been advanced by stakeholders, no proposals are without costs or drawbacks. 

In particular, radical or disruptive change to GCSEs would undermine the value and benefits of GCSEs to millions of students currently, and the currency and trust in GCSEs that has built over the last thirty years. Radical changes would also impose additional workload on teachers.

If GCSEs were scrapped, another qualification would have to replace them in order to enable progression, but one which would be very unlikely to have the same levels of currency or trust, directly disadvantaging those students awarded a new qualification.  

  • Policymakers need to ensure that GCSEs work as well as possible for students from all walks of life 

As a universal qualification for students from all walks of life, GCSEs need to work for as many young people as possible. 

Many factors will determine the value that GCSEs provide to individual young people, with many factors having nothing to do with the design of GCSEs. 

Nevertheless, there appear to be clear and measurable differences in the benefits reported by different groups of young people regarding their GCSEs, in particular, with those attaining lower grades apparently less likely to report positive benefits of GCSEs, such as motivating them or informing their choice about what to do next. 

Given the diversity of young people who take GCSEs, it is perhaps inevitable that there will be variations in the value that GCSEs provide for them. 

However, precisely because GCSEs are a ‘universal’ qualification, policymakers should strive to ensure that GCSEs provide as much value as possible to all students. 

  • More research is required to understand differences in the experience and value of GCSEs among young people

As noted, differences in the experience and value of GCSEs among young people will reflect a wide range of individual, centre and contextual factors, as well as the wide diversity of progression routes, experiences and labour market conditions that young people encounter after they receive their grades. 

For example, academic research on young people who do not attain a grade 4 in GCSE Maths and English notes that post-16 structures, course offers and entry requirements vary substantially across the country and even within local authority areas, such that people with similar attainment achieve different things depending on where they live.16

However, overall, the evidence is limited on what determines variations among young people in their experience of GCSEs and the value they take from them. 

More research is clearly needed, and policymakers should consider what could be done to more fully monitor how GCSEs support young people’s progression. For example, policymakers could consider undertaking an annual survey of young people at different stages before and after they have taken their GCSEs to identify which types of students need additional support.  

Appendix: Five myths about GCSEs

Introduction

GCSEs are taken by hundreds of thousands of students each year, and evidence indicates they are widely understood and trusted by the public. 

Nevertheless, GCSEs are sometimes misrepresented in debate. A number of ‘myths’ have grown up around GCSE qualifications, particularly in the wake of the reforms to GCSEs first awarded from 2017. These myths are regularly repeated in commentary and debate on the future of GCSEs and each therefore merits proper examination and scrutiny against the evidence: 

  • “GCSEs do not assess skills”
  • “GCSEs narrow the curriculum”
  • “GCSEs only assess students through written exams”
  • “GCSEs automatically fail a third of students”
  • “England is the only country in the world to assess students at 16”

“GCSEs do not assess skills”

GCSEs assess attainment in a range of different knowledge and skills depending on the subject area. The specific knowledge and skills assessed in different subjects are determined by the Department for Education. 

Some GCSEs assess content and skills in non-academic subjects, such as GCSE Food and Nutrition, which includes the assessment of relevant skills such as knife skills and the ability to select and adjust a cooking process. 

However, in debate on GCSEs, even core academic GCSE subjects are often characterised as only assessing knowledge to the exclusion of skills. 

This is misleading. While it is true that GCSEs do not seek to specifically assess vocational and technical skills, academic GCSEs do assess skills. Indeed, many of these skills are highly relevant and transferable to other settings – including employment – and not just to further study in an academic subject. 

This is best illustrated by reviewing the skills assessed in the core academic GCSEs that comprise the government’s ‘EBacc’ measure: 

  • GCSE History – the DfE assessment objectives (AOs) for GCSE History include: 
    • AO2: explain and analyse historical events and periods studied using second-order historical concepts
    • AO3: analyse, evaluate and use sources (contemporary to the period) to make substantiated judgements, in the context of historical events studied
    • AO4: analyse, evaluate and make substantiated judgements about interpretations (including how and why interpretations may differ) in the context of historical events studied.
  • GCSE MFL – for GCSE MFL (Modern Foreign Languages), there is an assessment objective for each of the four skills assessed:
    • AO1: Listening
    • AO2: Speaking
    • AO3: Reading
    • AO4: Writing
  • GCSE English – in GCSE English Language, students are assessed on a range of skills:
    • AO1: identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas; select and synthesise evidence from different texts
    • AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views
    • AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts
    • AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references
    • AO5: Communicate clearly, effectively and imaginatively, selecting and adapting tone, style and register for different forms, purposes and audiences. Organise information and ideas, using structural and grammatical features to support coherence and cohesion of texts.
  • GCSE English Literature – the following AOs are applied: 
    • AO1: Read, understand and respond to texts. Students should be able to: maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response; use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations
    • AO2: Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate
    • AO3: Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written
    • AO4: Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation.
  • GCSE Maths
    • AO2: Reason, interpret and communicate mathematically – Students should be able to: make deductions, inferences and draw conclusions from mathematical information; construct chains of reasoning to achieve a given result; interpret and communicate information accurately present arguments and proofs; assess the validity of an argument and critically evaluate a given way of presenting information
    • AO3: Solve problems within mathematics and in other contexts – Students should be able to: translate problems in mathematical or non-mathematical contexts into a process or a series of mathematical processes; make and use connections between different parts of mathematics; interpret results in the context of the given problem; evaluate methods used and results obtained; evaluate solutions to identify how they may have been affected by assumptions made.
  • GCSE Geography
    • AO3: Apply knowledge and understanding to interpret, analyse and evaluate geographical information and issues to make judgements
    • AO4: Select, adapt and use a variety of skills and techniques to investigate questions and issues and communicate findings.
  • GCSE Science
    • AO1: demonstrate knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, scientific techniques and procedures 
    • AO2: Applyi knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, scientific techniques and procedures
    • AO3: Analyse information and ideas to: interpret and evaluate; make judgements and draw conclusions; develop and improve experimental procedure
    • As part of their practical assessment, students are also assessed in relation to: the correct use of particular pieces of apparatus; the skills needed to carry out practical work in a safe way, following universal safety standards; specific experimental techniques needed when carrying out a practical procedure. 

“GCSEs narrow the curriculum”

A recurring observation regarding GCSEs among some commentators is that GCSEs are responsible for “narrowing the curriculum”. Is this correct? 

The Department for Education has specified and approved subject content for 51 GCSE subjects across a diverse range of areas, including GCSE Electronics, Film Studies and Citizenship Studies. 

However, GCSEs are not the only qualifications young people can enter at Key Stage 4.

Alongside GCSEs, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) currently offers funding for over 1,200 Level 2 qualifications for 14-16 year-olds, comprising academic, vocational and technical qualifications.17 This includes: 

  • 23 Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs), which assess skills in maths, English and ICT as applied to real-life situations
  • two Higher Project Qualifications (HPQs), which are taken by students who wish to undertake in-depth independent research into something about which they are passionate, usually alongside other pre-16 qualifications, both academic and vocational
  • hundreds of qualifications certifying vocational skills and life skills. 

As such, there are in fact a dizzying number of GCSEs and other qualifications that young people can enter for aged 14-16. 

However, the choices facing many young people in what they study during these years will be far narrower. More schools prioritise GCSEs and many will offer less than half the number of GCSE subjects that are available. 

There are many reasons why this is the case. In part, this reflects the expectations of parents and the widely trusted and understood nature of GCSEs. 

Another key factor shaping school decisions regarding what qualifications to offer in their Key Stage 4 curriculum is the government’s school accountability system. The government introduced a new secondary school accountability system in 2016. The purpose of this system is described by the government as being:18

“to inform parents and students about school performance; to prompt and promote self-improvement, to inform the public and stakeholders; and to provide credible information to enable action in cases of underperformance.” 

This school accountability system has been designed to have GCSE qualifications at its core. Indeed, the headline measures which appear in school performance tables are all based on a school’s GCSE outcomes. These include:  

  • Progress 8 –Progress across eight GCSEs, comprising: 
    • GCSE maths (double weighted) and GCSE English (double weighted, if both English language and English literature are sat) 
    • three qualifications that count in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measures – see below 
    • three further qualifications that can be GCSE qualifications (including EBacc subjects) or technical awards from the DfE approved list 
  • Attainment 8 – Attainment across the same 8 qualifications as Progress 8 
  • Attainment in English and maths – Percentage of pupils achieving a grade 5 or above in English and maths
  • EBacc entry – Percentage of pupils entering for GCSEs that are English Baccalaureate, comprising: 
    • English language and literature
    • maths
    • the sciences
    • geography or history
    • a language
  • EBacc APS –English Baccalaureate Average Point Score 
  • Pupil destinations –Percentage of students staying in education or going into employment after key stage 4. 

Just as the school accountability system has been designed around GCSEs, the design of this accountability system has a significant effect on what GCSEs centres choose to offer and patterns of GCSE entries by centres, ie the number of GCSEs students enter for and the subjects chosen. 

For example, NFER has noted that 81.4% of all GCSE entries in 2019 were in EBacc subjects, compared to 73.6% in 2009.19 This reflects a deliberate policy intention of the Department for Education to ensure that as many children as possible study a core of academic subjects to the age of 16, before taking decisions about progression to specialist Level 3 pathways, such as A-levels or Apprenticeships.20

In the absence of the current school accountability system, it may be that students would enter for fewer GCSEs, or other Level 2 qualifications alongside their GCSEs. Conversely, it may be that even without measures such as Progress 8, the dominance of GCSEs in the Key Stage 4 curriculum of schools would be maintained because of the much higher currency of GCSEs relative to other Level 2 qualifications. 

Overall, it is clearly misleading to suggest that GCSEs are responsible for narrowing the curriculum. There are a large number of GCSEs subjects and other qualifications that can be taken at Key Stage 4. The choices that students and centres make reflect the status and currency of GCSEs, as well as other factors, notably the school accountability system. 

“GCSEs only assess students through written exams”

In order to create valid and reliable assessments for qualifications, choices regarding how to assess knowledge and skills should always follow decisions regarding the content that is to be assessed. The same is true of GCSE qualifications, and current GCSEs are assessed through a variety of assessment modes. 

While the last round of reforms to GCSE clearly placed greater emphasis on end-of-course written exams, a popular myth regarding GCSEs suggests students are only assessed via long-form written answers in an examination hall. 

This is not the case. Data from Ofqual’s register of qualifications indicate that the 141 different GCSE qualifications available in England use the following types of assessment: 

  • Written examination (136)
  • Oral examination (27)
  • Task-based controlled 
  • Assessment (27)
  • Aural examination (24)
  • Multiple choice (19)
  • Coursework (15)
  • Portfolio of evidence (8)
  • Practical demonstration/Assignment (5)
  • Practical examination (4)

The majority of GCSE qualifications use more than one type of assessment.

“GCSEs automatically fail a third of students”

Some commentators have suggested that GCSE qualifications automatically fail one-third of students. 

This is incorrect. All GCSEs are graded 9 to 1. Every grade, including the lowest, denotes the achievement of knowledge and skills by a student. Only a handful of students – far less than one-third – will be unclassified, ie awarded a grade U, to indicate that they have not demonstrated the attainment of knowledge and skills required to be awarded a grade 1. 

Crucially, exam boards do not ‘fail’ any GCSE students, and there is no pass or fail grade. 

When commentators refer to students ‘failing’ a GCSE, this refers to guidance from the Department for Education for employers and Level 3 education providers, which recognises grade 4 and above as a ‘standard pass’ in all subjects. 

Why do commentators suggest that a third of students automatically fail? One third is roughly the proportion of recent students (2019 and before) who have been awarded a grade 3 to 1 each following application of a statistical method – known as the ‘comparable outcomes framework’ – to maintain standards, ie ensure that the level of attainment denoted by a grade is comparable to the same grade awarded to other students in other years and in other cohorts. 

The application of such academic standards through the process of setting grade boundaries is essential to the currency of GCSEs as qualifications. Without the application of such standards, GCSE qualifications would lose their currency and their value to students. 

Is the proportion of students who receive a grade 3 to 1 under the comparable outcomes method fixed? No. The use of the comparable outcomes approach is supplemented by The National Reference Test (NRT) for GCSE Mathematics and English Language. This enables exam boards to adjust the proportion of students achieving a particular grade based on evidence of improvements in performance of the cohort.

“England is the only country in the world to assess students at 16” 

A number of commentators have suggested that England is the only country in the world to assess its students across a range of subjects at the age of 16. 

This is not the case. In fact, a wide range of comparable countries have national assessments for students at around this age, as students are selected into different pathways and continue their education, as shown by the table below.  

The precise nature and scope of assessments varies by country. In some countries, a qualification is awarded to enable progression, while in others, progression takes place without a qualification but following specific testing. Unlike England, where most students change institution at 16, in countries such as Ireland, students remain at the same institution. 

  • International comparison of secondary level filtering into different pathways
CountryWhen are students filtered?What pathways are they filtered into?What information is used to choose a pathway?
Canada16General upper secondary education OR Vocational/technical educationVaries across provinces/territories.
England15-16Further education (sixth form, further education college, apprenticeship) OR work-based trainingHigh-stakes national assessments, regulated by Ofqual and provided by independent examining bodies.
Finland16General upper secondary education OR Vocational education and apprenticeshipsTeacher-assessed grades based on students’ performance throughout the year, with reference to the national curriculum.
France15Upper secondary education: General OR technological OR vocational schoolExternally set state assessment, with a teacher recommendation on the most appropriate path.
Germany10 

15
Lower secondary: academic school OR intermediate school OR general school
Upper secondary: General education OR vocational school OR vocational training within a dual system
Pathways at age 15 (lower -> upper secondary) based on internal school assessment. Different schools provide access to different upper secondary programmes.
Italy14Vocational training and education OR Vocational education OR Technical education OR General educationStudent choice.
Japan15Private or state upper secondary education schools. Some schools combine lower and upper secondary and do not require examination between stagesHigh-stakes examinations are designed and set by prefectures (state schools) or by private schools themselves. Content is aligned to national curriculum but varies across schools.
Netherlands12Pre-vocational education OR General education OR pre-universityCentrally administered examination creates a student profile. Advice is given at primary school based on at least two teachers’ judgements, which takes priority over examination results and is legally binding. 
Russia15General upper secondary: Lyceum (specialised programmes, often linked to university) OR gymnasium (specialised programmes, usually humanities), OR other selective institutionsHigh-stakes state examination aligned to national curriculum.
USA16General secondary school OR vocational school
Within schools, students can be on a general, honours/advanced, or college preparatory pathways
Teacher-assessed grades based on performance across a range of tasks; state-based assessments aligned to state curriculum and national core standards.
All students take an aptitude test created by external organisations, which is sometimes used for university admission.

References

  1.  Source: Ofqual qualifications register
  2.  Given differences in qualifications policy toward GCSEs across the devolved nations of the UK, the focus of the report is exclusively on GCSEs in England.
  3.  Department for Education (2019) Destinations of key stage 4 and 16-18 students, England, 2017/18, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860135/Destinations_main_text_2020_REV.pdf The remaining 7% of students are categorised by the Department for Education as ‘destination not sustained’ or ‘activity not captured’.
  4.  See Ofqual publication 'Perceptions of AS/A levels, GCSEs and Applied General qualifications in England’ 
  5.  Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/gcse-subject-content#subject-content-for-teaching-from-2015-onwards
  6.  Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/gcse-subject-content#subject-content-for-teaching-from-2015-onwards 
  7.  Source: Ofqual
  8.  For more information, see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/800507/GCSE_factsheet_for_parents__final_.pdf 
  9.  Ofqual (2021) Annual Qualifications Market Report: 2018 to 2019 academic year, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/863891/Annual_Qualifications_Market_Report_academic_year_2018_to_2019.pdf  
  10.  JCQ (2019) Outcomes for key grades for UK, England, Northern Ireland & Wales, including UK age breakdowns
  11.  Source: Ofqual (2021) Qualifications price index 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/qualifications-price-index-2020/qualifications-price-index-2020 
  12. Carroll, M & Gill, T. (2017) Uptake of GCSE subjects 2016. Statistics Report Series No. 114. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment
  13.  Source: ESFA List of Qualifications approved for funding
  14.  YouGov (2020) Perceptions of AS/A levels, GCSEs and Applied General qualifications in England – Wave 18, An Ofqual commissioned report
  15.  Savanta ComRes interviewed 1,001 English Young People (18-30 years old) online between 16th and 24th August 2021. All participants had sat GCSE examinations in 2016 or 2017. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of English Young People (18-30 years old) by gender, region, and social grade. Savanta ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
  16. See Lupton R et al. (2021) Moving on from initial GCSE ‘failure’: Post-16 transitions for ‘lower attainers’ and why the English education system must do better, https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/students-who-do-not-achieve-a-grade-c-or-above-in-english-and-maths
  17.  Source: ESFA List of Qualifications approved for funding
  18.  DfE (2020) Secondary accountability measures: Guide for maintained secondary schools, academies and free schools, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/872997/Secondary_accountability_measures_guidance_February_2020_3.pdf
  19.  Hepworth N (2019) GCSE Entries: How are non-EBacc subjects faring since the introduction of Progress 8?, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/news-events/nfer-blogs/gcse-entries-how-are-non-ebacc-subjects-faring-since-the-introduction-of-progress-8/
  20.  Source: Ofqual

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