Schools seize on ‘perfect time’ to explore a future free of GCSEs

Generally the subjects and activities that we liked the most at school were the ones we were good at, so guess what when I say I dislike exams.

I was never a good last minute crammer and always felt that rewarding a persons ability to remember (possibly only in the short term) was not a good measure to carry with you for the rest of your life.

Likewise whilst my course work was generally good, I have always had a mental blank over certain things: exams, languages being the two main ‘things’, and whilst I would never endorse the “open book” tests we had at High School in America (which even I passed), I have always favoured a continual assessment approach, with perhaps a verbal discussion forming part of it.

People have different strengths, and develop at different speeds, so a system that was so heavily weighted to an ‘all or nothing’ assessment never sat well with me.

All of which goes to explain why the recent article in The Times caught my attention.

Original Article

Heads of two secondaries — one with links to the royal family — aim to show that pupils can thrive without exams

Two new schools, one from the man behind the phrase “bog-standard comprehensive”, the other from the group of private schools that educates Prince George, are to challenge the belief that teenagers should sit exams at 16.

Peter Hyman, a former Downing Street aide to Tony Blair, and Ben and Tobyn Thomas, brothers who own Thomas’s Battersea, where George and sister Princess Charlotte are pupils, will open secondary schools that will not offer GCSEs unless parents insist on it. They are backing a national movement to scrap the exams, which campaigners say are damaging, outdated and stressful.

The campaigners argue that two years of not holding exams because of the pandemic makes it the ideal time to create a better system for assessing what teenagers know and can do. Britain is the last country in Europe in which pupils sit national exams at 16.

The new schools plan to use different ways of recording children’s achievement, such as digital passports of teenagers’ progress, regularly updated by teachers. That would spare 16-year-olds from sitting in exam halls for 30 hours or more of high-stakes written tests.

One is the Thomas group’s first senior school, opening in September. Thomas’s Battersea Square, for pupils up to the age of 18, is developing an online passport to record teenagers’ kindness and creativity, social and communication skills and teamwork as well as their academic progress.

The new school’s top rule is “Be kind” and pupils will spend more than a day a week on sports, ballet, pottery, art, crafts and drama. They will also work with classmates on projects that inspire them. Achievements and character traits will be regularly updated online.

Tobyn Thomas said he and his brother Ben — Prince George’s former head teacher — agreed with campaigners, including the former Tory education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking, the architect of GCSEs, who argue that exams measure the wrong things, stifle children’s creativity and hinder youngsters from finding their talents. The campaigners, who belong to the movement Rethinking Assessment, also say that England’s “mutant exam system” is not turning out youngsters who succeed in the 21st century. One in three graduates in the UK fails to find a graduate-level job after university. Many employers and universities now hold their own tests to select candidates.

“We do not disagree with anything [they say]. We support their arguments,” said Thomas. “It has been amazing watching Ken Baker, who brought in GCSEs, saying: ‘Now let’s take them out.’ The question is, how do you change from a 19th-century system to a 21st-century system? The world awaiting our pupils is changing massively. What we are seeking within our pupils is how to think, to question and to understand . . . not to knock them into an industrial-style exam factory.”

The Thomas’s group is working with Area9, an American company with advisers who include Esther Wojcicki, a former teacher who raised two tycoons. One daughter, Susan, is CEO of YouTube and her sister Anne, former wife of the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, created the genetics testing site 23andMe. In her bestselling parenting book, How to Raise Successful People, Wojcicki says independence and creativity serve children better than test prep and memorisation.

In the state sector, Hyman, who co-founded the east London school School 21, is opening a senior school in the capital that will use online portfolios and school dashboards to measure and record character traits and physical skills as well as academic knowledge. “I don’t think it is good for children for their last four years of school to be cramming for exams,” said Hyman. “In 10 years’ time, I think everyone will leave school with a weblink to a portfolio showing what they have done at school.”

Hyman is said to have invented the phrase “bog-standard comprehensive”, which caused outrage when Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press supremo, said Labour’s new specialist schools meant “the end of the bog-standard comprehensive”.

A third free school, called XP, in Doncaster, south Yorkshire, which teaches children by sending them on “learning expeditions” to solve real-life problems, is also being held up as an example of how to teach teenagers differently.

Schools are not legally obliged to enter children for GCSEs, but most state schools did so because the results decide their position in league tables.

In America, some schools have adopted student profiles setting out attributes such as compassion or determination. Thomas said one American school had “got 100 kids into top universities with no grades at all. They have started a school with no exams.”

The new schools will deal a further blow to England’s national testing system. Teenagers have been prevented from sitting GCSE and A-level exam papers for two years because of the pandemic. This weekend the Worth Less? network of 2,000 headteachers, which is also calling for exams to be scrapped, said GCSEs and A-levels were unlikely to go ahead in full for a third consecutive year next summer because children had already lost too much lesson time.

A consultation on how this summer’s qualifications should be awarded ended on Friday and no final decision is expected for another two weeks.

Robert Halfon, the chairman of the education select committee, said a growing number of Tory MPs felt GCSEs and even A-levels should be scrapped.

“We need an assessment system that is relevant to the world we live in,” Halfon said. He added that there was a row in his party over GCSEs, which are regarded by education ministers as critical for driving up standards so that England’s teenagers can compete with their peers in the Far East “tiger” economies. In international tests in maths, science and English, UK teenagers are outstripped by their counterparts in countries such as Singapore and China.

Asked if Prince George might attend the new senior school when he is old enough, Tobyn Thomas declined to comment.

William attended Eton college, but Kate and William, keen mental health advocates, broke with tradition when they sent George and his sister Charlotte to Thomas’s Battersea. Pupils leaving Thomas’s prep and primary schools go on to a range of schools including Eton and Wellington, which take exam performance very seriously.