Headteachers condemn decision to scrap GCSEs as a ‘retrograde step’

Headteachers in Camden and Haringey have condemned Michael Gove’s controversial decision to scrap GCSEs and replace them with a new English Baccalaureate exam as a “retrograde step”.

The education minister announced last week that GCSEs will be replaced with the new exam from 2017 to end “grade inflation and dumbing down”.

Under the English Baccalaureate system, pupils results will be based on end-of-year exams rather than a combination of coursework, module assessments and exams.

Not all pupils will take the new exam at age 16, with the changes coming alongside raising the school leaving age to 18.

Maureen Williams, headteacher of La Sainte Union Convent School in Highgate Road, Kentish Town, said: “It’s a serious disappointment because when the GCSE was introduced it did give an opportunity for pupils from more or less the whole ability range to achieve. Setting up a system where there is failure in significant numbers of young people can’t be good.”

Helen Anthony, headteacher of Fortismere School in Tetherdown, Muswell Hill, said: “Whilst I fully support anything which maintains rigour I see it as a retrograde step because creativity is completely overlooked. The combination of subjects given status look like something from the 20th century and not the 21st century. The arts and technology subjects have no value at all.”

Mrs Williams said she has been stopped by parents in the street who are “quite outraged” despite the perception nationally that some have lost faith in the system.

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“I think at the moment there isn’t enough public trust in the integrity of the system,” she said. “There is a public conception of dumbing down and that has to be changed but this system that says that some pass and some fail is not the way to do that.”

Jo Armitage, headteacher of Acland Burghley School in Burghley Road, Kentish Town, said the change would undermine the GCSE.

“I feel that it’s really unhelpful to launch a new system by rubbishing the current one which pupils are going to be working towards for a few years,” she said.

Others fear the English Baccalaureate will penalise pupils who do not perform well in exams.

Haringey headteacher Joan McVittie, a former president of Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “I do not have an issue with increasing rigour.

“However, I took O-level exams and the person who got the best grades was the person with the best memory rather than the best understanding. I would not want to see a return to that type of exam.”

Others welcomed the opportunity for reform, in particular of the exam marking system and setting up a single board for the English Baccalaureate rather than multiple exam boards for GCSEs.

Kenneth Durham, headteacher of University College School in Frognal, Hampstead, said: “I think there’s a huge problem with the actual assessment of exams in the UK. The quality of marking is not as rigorous as it should be.

“If we don’t address that then any new exam will suffer in the same way.”

Adam Pettitt, headteacher of Highgate School in North Road, Highgate, said: “An exam is only as good as those who mark it, and the many flaws in the current system owe as much to the quality of assessment as to the content of the syllabus.”

The new proposals will undergo consultation before being introduced.