The 1984 GCSE ‘quiet revolution’ has been betrayed

Janet Downs's picture

The launch of GCSEs back in 1984 was a ‘quiet revolution’, schools minister Nick Gibb wrote in today’s Times*.  But it’s a revolution that has been betrayed.

GCSEs were the brainchild of the then education secretary Keith Joseph.  His vision was for common school-leaving exams taken at age 16 which would show what each pupil could achieve in the subjects they took.  These would be graded from G (basic) to A (exceptional).  Pupils achieving the threshold grade G would pass.  The tiny number failing to reach the basic standard would be ungraded (U).

The BBC reported at the time that GCSEs would ‘also place more emphasis on oral and practical skills where possible’.   Coursework was an important part of the exam.

Keith Joseph’s vision has faded.   Coursework has gone.  The emphasis on oracy and practical skills has gone.  The idea that the lower grades have value has gone.  Anything less than a grade C (now grade 4) is not a ‘good’ GCSE.    The 40% or so who don’t achieve a ‘good’ GCSE are made to feel failures.

Keith Joseph, if he were still alive, would despair. 

Gibb is right that GCSEs required reform.  There was no need for a school-leaving exam at age 16 when young people are now expected to remain in education or training until 18.  The reform that was needed was a move towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes (which could include exams taken at 16 whether GCSE or equivalent).

Instead, Michael Gove rushed through wholesale changes to GCSEs claiming he was introducing more ‘rigour’ and bringing exams in England in line with the rest of the world.

But the rest of the world were moving, or had moved, towards graduation at 18.  Exams taken at age 16, end of lower secondary, if they exist at all, are fewer in number and used to decide upper secondary progression.  Tests taken at 16 are for the benefit of pupils.

But not in England.  The prime value of GCSEs is for judging schools.


*reproduced on the Department for Education’s blog.

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