GCSE Exams: Keeping a proportionate positive perspective.

Despite the fact that we’ve been running Y11 exams in one form or another for decades, there is always a fairly strong undercurrent in the discourse around the annual exam season characterised by a sense of injustice and unreasonableness.  In relation to GCSEs, the following arguments are rehearsed fairly often:

  • Exams don’t measure everything that matters in a subject.
  • Exams don’t teach anyone anything – they’ll forget most of it.
  • There are too many exams condensed into a short time.
  • Or, conversely, the exam window is too long – too drawn out.
  • Exam pressure causes unjustifiable mental health issues -and this is rising.
  • Exams are too hard – which isn’t fair for some students.
  • GCSEs are shallow and don’t prepare students for higher levels of learning.
  • GCSEs don’t encourage a lifelong love of learning.
  • Exams are all about targets and league tables and we’re supposed to be educating rounded individuals.
  • And the usual dose of survivor bias – happy successful people who failed their exams always keen to celebrate this fact.
  • The annual confusion and ignorance about grade boundaries shifting (they have to and always will) and imagined conspiracies between examiners, Ofqual, the DFE and the Secretary of State to make us all miserable on purpose.

This recent article by Simon Jenkins is a classic example of this kind of anti-exam hysteria.  It’s so way over the top, it’s hard to take any of the arguments seriously.

Let me restore some balance.

I think it’s very powerful to have a rigorous test to aim at when teaching a course – and learning one.  It’s all too easy to graze over the surface of a subject, getting a general feel for it but not quite going in deep enough to really commit to learning, understanding and acquiring fluency at the level that is possible.  The very fact of having an end-point assessment that really matters drives behaviours all along; it makes it all count; it makes you commit.  Good teachers balance low-stakes formative learning with the process of getting ready for the high-stakes performance and step things up at the right moment.  The intensity required to excel at GCSE pushes us all to secure deeper learning.  If anyone suggested that, without exams, we’d reach deeper learning – I’d say they were wrong.  We just wouldn’t.

As I report in this blog, GCSE Revision is Poetry: Intensity, hard work – and so much deep learning    I’ve seen my son enjoy the business of getting to grips with learning, brimming with ideas and knowledge, thriving on the challenge of aiming high in lots of subjects.

We need to be realistic about what a system can be like if we want 16 year olds to gain valued qualifications in a range of subjects.  (Arguably we could do away with GCSEs and just teach stuff or condense it all into one general qualification with subject elements, examined more tightly over a few days but that would require a much wider debate.)  Meanwhile, qualifications require standards to be set; standards require thresholds; thresholds reference a bell-curve.  (See here if you don’t understand this – I do really get tired of people who argue against norm referencing as if it’s a conspiracy. Every time someone says this, it just means they don’t know how assessment works. )

Exams can only ever measure parts of what makes up a subject.  Of course.  Obviously. Lots of things can be tested by exams but that doesn’t mean this is all that we value.  It’s up to us to give value to a wider curriculum beyond the assessed curriculum.  Yes, there is time pressure – but it’s still a choice we make in how and what we teach.   Let’s have a nuanced debate about the scope of a curriculum, the content and structure of exams – but exams themselves need to be rigorous and tightly managed if they are to lead to credible qualifications.  Grade inflation and dubious equivalences between subjects do nobody any good – because people don’t trust the whole system.  Ed Balls never understood this. (The same man who ‘talked tough’ on standards and  introduced the technical insanity of floor targets in a bell-curved system and should not be forgiven lightly for that…)

In my view there is a healthy pressure and work ethic that endpoint assessments generate.  As a parent I’ve been quite happy to see my kids work really hard – super hard – for several months, motivated by the desire to succeed; to be ready to do their best.  I totally reject the idea that this is intrinsically unfair or unhealthy or that the kind of exam revision required to get top GCSE grades is superficial and temporary.  Would our kids know more in five years’ time if they hadn’t sat their exams – no! They’d know much less.  They have much greater chance of remembering knowledge having had to revise extensively.   This is particularly true, for both of my children and countless students I’ve taught, because the exam revision process had yielded multiple lightbulb moments.  The intensity of study suddenly brings things together that were only half understood before. I had the same experience myself – I can still remember when A level chemistry suddenly all fell into place: not at school but in my room, at my desk, sweating it out ahead of my exams.

Passing on pressure to students  or failing to keep them in perspective within a broader ‘love of the subject’ is an issue for schools, teachers and parents.  And, of course, sometimes this can go wrong.  The reported rise in mental health issues always cites a combination of factors – including social media and school work.  It’s a complex message to give:  to encourage/push students to excel, to risk failure, to aim high, to put themselves on the line… whilst also saying it’s ok if it goes wrong, that life goes on: that it matters a lot – but not *that* much.  However, even if we accept the data, I don’t think it is possible to separate exam pressure from wider teenage mental health issues to the point that we might conclude that students shouldn’t do exams or that we should change their nature.  It’s more that we need to give more value to other things as well.  I don’t think it helps to argue that, because some young people do not cope well with exam pressure – or are not adequately supported to cope well – , that we should change this system for everyone.

The answer is not to soften the challenge – it is to do a better job of preparing students for it: academically and emotionally.

To keep the new GCSE reforms in perspective, let’s remember that there isn’t anything new to having a 4-6 week period in May and June packed with exams.  I cringe every time someone blames Michael Gove for the existence of hard exams.  Even if we might want to go back to coursework, Mode 3 assessments and fewer papers in Maths and History – it’s not as if the exam window is really significantly different to what it was.  It has evolved but the basic format is largely the same, even with more terminal exams.  I would say that getting rid of lots of coursework has been a blessing, freeing up time in the curriculum, removing really poor assessments and learning experiences like science ISAs and the annual parrot-fest of English speaking and listening assessments. (Your school might not have done this way –  hundreds did.). Some things are better off being left out of exams.

What issues remain?

It’s not all perfect of course. But it’s often hard to raise concerns in a manner that doesn’t fuel the hysteria. Here are a few things we need to deal with:

  • Ideally exams would form just one part of a wider Baccalaureate system. Half the issues with the exam system stem from there being no nationally recognised framework to formally give value to everything else. Perhaps, if a proper English Bacc was the main thing, we could have less emphasis on qualifications at 16  – even we still set exams; they wouldn’t be quite so high-stakes.
  • Grades 1-3 need to be rescued from the dustbin of failure. It’s totally unnecessary; it’s wrong; ignorate even – to have a pass/fail in a system were thousands of children must fail.  I’ll never forgive Nicky Morgan for her wilful ignorance in this area – when she destroyed the revolution 1-9 grades could have been.
  • For sure, the accountability pressure schools and teachers experience is misguided and over the top.   We still have a ‘shock horror, half of children in bottom 50%’ level of understanding of what is possible within a cohort – in the media, in government, in governing body meetings, during inspections.  Every governing body and Lead Inspector expects results to go up even when, de facto, this can’t happen for everyone.
  • I’m doubtful that we need three separate papers for any subject instead of two. A small reduction in total exam time would probably make little difference to grading  but would ease the revision burden and reduce the total exam window time in a proportionate manner.
  • Post-16 we need a different qualification to aim at other than resitting English and Maths GCSE – repeated failure and disillusionment is hard-wired in the current system.
  • Progress 8 needs to be put in its place as the shaky-baseline  noisy zero-sum average that it is – with dubious real value to any student and multiple negatives in terms of some short-term school curriculum choices.
  • We need to be cautious with 9s – taking care not to diminish 7s and 8s. 8s are the dominant A* standard and 9s will be noisy in relation to representing ‘true’ superiority in students’ relative capabilities in any subject.  As a parent of someone ‘aiming at 9s’ in most subjects, I worry about how 8s will be valued in his eyes and the eyes of others. We’re all working hard to manage our hopes and expectations and keep it all in perspective.

For further assessment material, I’ve gathered lots of assessment-related blogs here:

Understanding Assessment: A blog guide



  1. Tom, we cannot ignore the workload impact of thse new Gcses. Quite apart from all the new curriculum planning etc, the last two weeks have been frenetic. Teachers used to get a short breather at this point which helped us all reflect on the year gone and plan for the future. Not this year. Everyone is shattered.


    • We can acknowledge workload but is it that different? I wonder if it’s inevitable with new specs. Exams have run into late June for years and I don’t remember any breather except for people with a lot of gained time. Also, whilst acknowledging that implementing all the specs at once has been hard, the exams themselves are better in many respects. We can’t go back in time; we can only move forward and suggest future policy changes.


  2. GCSEs don’t work for thousands of students every year – never have done, A*-U or 1-0, who cares? Why don’t we properly differentiate our curriculum at age 14? Those who want to progress to A levels, do GCSEs. Those who want a different route – a trade, creative, sporting, whatever… start a completely different path with ‘proper’ functional Maths and English, Wellbeing and then their chosen route – easy really!


  3. Hi there i am about to start my gcses and my account is mainly for teachers and youngers to see the real experience from a students eyes, id love if you could check my account out! any feedback would be great


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