Chairman of the Education Select Committee calls for GCSEs to be scrapped amid calls for secondary education reform

Source: Paul Hudson (via Flickr)

By Thomas Badham

This week, the Chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, has expressed an interest in the abolition of GCSEs in England. The Conservative MP for Harlow has recently suggested that “pointless” GCSEs should be replaced with a mixture of vocational and academic subjects, whilst A-Levels should be replaced by a qualification similar to the International Baccalaureate.

Halfon criticised GCSEs for failing to prepare students for a future workplace dominated by new technology, calling for changes. He argues apprenticeships have become a popular alternative to GCSEs and A-Levels. Over 800,000 people entered apprenticeships last year alone, with intermediate apprenticeships being the equivalent of five A-C GCSEs. Moreover, like GCSEs, they lead into further training at an advanced level.

Many schools have already shunned GCSEs in favour of alternative qualifications. In the private sector, some schools have created their own qualifications with almost half of privately educated teens sitting International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSEs) instead in 2017. IGCSEs were introduced around 25 years ago for pupils overseas, whose first language was not necessarily English. Julie Robinson, General Secretary for the Independent Schools Council, argues that private schools choose IGCSEs “due to their rigour and reliability compared with GCSEs”.

The impact these proposed changes would have upon university applications across the UK remains to be seen. Following recent government reforms, A-Levels are completed through one set of assessments at the end of two-year study, rather than being split between AS-Levels and A-Levels. However, these newly proposed reforms are far more divergent. The scrapping of GCSEs and replacement of A-Levels will complexify applying to university and how grades from different qualifications are converted. Moreover, the radical rewriting of these qualifications may be a huge burden on teachers who might need retraining to teach these new courses.

In Wales, education is a devolved issue so changes to the English education system will not necessarily be reflected across the border. Nevertheless, Wales is a net importer of students from elsewhere in the UK with around 9,000 more students entering Wales than leaving for university education. Government figures show that 40% of all undergraduates in Wales were educated in England – it is unlikely Welsh universities will turn away such a large proportion of their market if these new changes take place.

However, the Department of Education is firmly opposed to Halfon’s suggestion, arguing GCSEs are “gold standard” exams and students who undertake them are more likely to go on to study A-Levels. Hence, it does not seem likely that we will see any radical reform of England’s education system soon.