Should GCSEs be scrapped?

As thousands of children in England and Wales prepare for their GCSEs over the Easter break, we consider the future of the GCSE exam.

In the last few years, an increasing number of think-tanks, and influential figures have come out against the use of GCSE qualifications. The very man who oversaw their introduction, former Education Secretary Lord Baker, has joined those advocating for them to be abolished. With education now compulsory until the age of 18, and the founder of GCSEs calling for their retirement, it is time to reconsider the assessments.  Do GCSEs develop children to do what they really love and nurture the skills to negotiate the adult world?  If not, should GCSEs be scrapped? 

When GCSEs were introduced in 1988, around 50% of students left education at 16. Whereas, in 2021, the number of young people in either full time education or apprenticeships was up to 91.5%. 

Department of Education

The Department for Education (DfE), remains pro-GCSEs and responded, to EDSK’s 2021 report advocating the assessments’ retirement, along with other reforms, that: “GCSEs and A-levels are highly respected around the world, and we have also introduced T-levels as the new gold standard technical qualification for young people post-16.”

The DfE argues that, by removing GCSEs, students will no longer have sufficient grades to backup UCAS applications, and that overhaul will take time and money.  Opponents of GCSE reform point to the uncertainties it would provide for children and parents during the transition years – children who will have already had their education disrupted by the pandemic. 

Recognition for GCSEs

GCSEs are widely recognised by, colleges, universities, and employers. We could argue that they provide some indication of a student’s academic abilities and can aid the selection process for higher education institutions and for job and internship opportunities.

The qualification is also recognised widely by the international community, which is helpful for anyone who is relocating at 16+.

The case against GCSEs

The exam-centric model of GCSEs is too rigid in determining a young person’s potential. Some educational professionals see the UK as relying heavily on more passive forms of learning. GCSEs are symbolic of this – where the focus is on direct instruction, and there is an overreliance on memorising tasks.

GCSEs don’t prepare students for life

They are ineffective at preparing young people for a complex world in which they will have to learn how to navigate their finances, their employability and how to deal effectively with rejection and the inevitable relationship conflicts that life brings, both at home and at work.  There is a clear need to reorient education to one that is more structured around critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving. Children deserve an education that prepares them for their adult lives.

GCSEs suit some students, but not others

GCSEs prove a student’s ability to regurgitate information in a high-pressure environment.  Many students are unable to do this.  So GCSEs are setting them up to fail at the first hurdle.  This is incredibly unfair. 

International Baccalaureate (IB) students don’t sit GCSEs.

IB students don’t sit GCSEs.  They follow the Middle Years Programme (MYP) which is of a similar, if not higher level.   Yet IB students gain access to leading UK, European and US universities.  The US curriculum does not hold external exams at 16.  England and Wales are the only European countries to hold serious examinations at 16.  No other European national curriculum has high stakes exams at 16.  They opt for more coursework-based evaluations.

EDSK Think-tank Report

In 2021, a report by the educational think-tank EDSK, advocated the complete overhaul of secondary education in England. The report recommended a lower stakes computer-based assessment in place of GCSEs, which would help to future proof the education system in the wake of Covid. They concluded that a commission be established to effect curriculum reform – transferring the responsibility for the design of the national curriculum to a non-political body, that would change the strategy and approach of Ofsted. See our blog on whether Ofsted is fit for purpose here.

Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI)

Additionally, in 2022, a report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) bolstered the campaign against the exam-based system. TBI argue that school leaving qualifications at 16 is redundant in a system that requires children to be in education until the age of 18.

The TBI report recommends the replacement of GCSE examinations with lower stakes digital assessments beginning at 15 and acting as ‘staging posts’ for students working through their education.  This would give greater flexibility for pupil development through multiple assessment methods – ones that focus on different and creative projects through which students utilise their core digital, literacy and numeracy skills in a way that engages them.

The expense of GCSE exams

GCSEs cost an estimated £200million per examination round.  This is a major reason for their abolition.  The argument, which is becoming more and more prominent, is for a gradual form of assessment relying on a series of lower stakes methods.  This would give a more reflective view of a young person’s progress, gauge their relative strengths and weaknesses and better prepare them for the real world.

Reform for Teachers

‘the relentless chase for GCSE grades has ruined our profession.’ (Johnny from Hastings speaking to the BBC, 2019).

In the wake of major disruption to the education system during the pandemic, sweeping education reform is needed. 

The lost years of learning, coupled with the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic, have fractured parts of the UK’s education system. Attendance in schools has fallen dramatically, and many young people are still suffering from the fallout of skewed and arguably unfair results.

The lockdowns revealed and exacerbated the weaknesses in the UK’s current educational model. Teachers are under huge pressure to prepare young people for exams. This time and energy spent means that teachers are unable to communicate more innovative and engaging forms of education and evaluation.

Mental Health Crisis: both teachers and pupils

Teachers’ time is being wasted on the copy-and-paste style frameworks that pupils must learn for exams. A recent report by TES discusses how the ‘target-driven’ performance data schools depend upon is significantly contributing to a mental health crisis in the teaching profession, which is in turn feeding the wider educational recruitment crisis. And, arguably, the mental health crisis among the students preparing for these stressful exams. 

Exams at 18 versus exams at 16

Exams serve a purpose. Retaining information under high pressure is a suitable assessment for an 18-year-old applying to read medicine at university. It is a less useful indication of 16-year-olds ability to learn digital skills and AI, for them to enhance their problem-solving or entrepreneurship, or for them to be enriched by culture and literature. Coursework and gradual assessment can provide a much more dynamic view of a young person’s skills and potential.


GCSEs serve little purpose in the post-pandemic world. Scrapping them would also help assuage the mental health crisis and encourage students back to school.

As our education sector struggles to recover from the pandemic, there should be a greater focus on creativity and innovation in rebuilding the sector. Devolving powers further would allow our educators to assess 15–17-year-olds in a kinder and more compassionate way.  Education, from the Latin educere means to ‘draw out’ or ‘lead out’.  Far from drawing out children’s talents, GCSEs are shutting them down.  Education should allow children to do what they really love. It should give children the skills they need to negotiate an increasingly complex world:  resilience, effective communication, maintenance of good and positive relationships, and digital and financial literacy.   

If a child does not succeed in their GCSE exams aged 16, a form of assessment for which they might be completely unsuited, it can have a long-lasting effect on their self-confidence and self-worth. Is this morally right or fair?

For advice, and for supported applications, to state and private schools, please contact us.