Skip to main content

Asking the question: How can we provide a fair and relevant evaluation of the knowledge and skills of all learners in Secondary Education?

Friday 10 November 2023

Photograph of pupils in an examination hall

GCSE exams were first introduced in 1986 as a national qualification for school-leavers at a time when post-16 education or training was not compulsory. They have been through various overhauls, including in 2015 when course work was removed from most subjects and the pass mark raised.

Now, the Government requires all young people to achieve a minimum of a grade 4 (or grade C for exam boards in Wales or Northern Ireland) in English and Maths and pupils who struggle to achieve this must continually resit until they meet this or they leave education. Whilst grade 4 is a ‘standard pass’, school league tables are based, confusingly, on the percentage of pupils who achieve a level 5 (a ‘strong pass’) or above in English and Maths.

The Government also tracks other performance measures, such as the proportion of pupils achieving a Level 2 qualification, which requires 5 GCSEs grade 9-4, and Progress 8 scores, which measure the progress of each pupil from the end of primary school to the end of Key Stage 4 across their eight best subjects.

Does this current system of assessment meet the needs of all learners, particularly those with Special Educational Needs (SEN)?

No. Here’s why.

One third of pupils labelled a failure.

The marking system for GSCEs ordains that approximately one third of pupils will fail them. GCSE grade boundaries have been described as a ‘zero-sum game’, where for some pupils to pass, others must fail.

Those leaving education without these basic qualifications struggle to gain entry to further qualifications, including many vocational courses, an apprenticeship or sustainable employment.

Inevitably, those pupils who do not achieve a grade 4 or above are disproportionately represented by young people with SEN or who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

They must then resit exams which can be agonising and which they may well fail again. This is surely a factor in the growing numbers of young people not in education, employment or training (a whopping 12.3% ), and a contributing pressure exacerbating the burgeoning mental health crisis among young people.

The disadvantages of ‘high stakes’ exams

Scrapping coursework for most GCSEs has meant that GCSE grades largely depend on the pupil’s performance for a few hours at the end of the course. Summative assessment like this disadvantages learners with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties:

  • It focuses on information retrieval, requiring candidates to put their ideas onto paper in a concise manner to enable them to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. Difficulties with working memory and a slower speed of processing may prevent dyslexic candidates from being able to recall and articulate their knowledge within the timed exam.
  • Reading challenges may impact access to exam questions. Unknown words may present a barrier to understanding the full question or text. Poor comprehension may necessitate the need to read and re-read information, affecting timing; or may cause misinterpretation of a question or result in missing a vital requirement to gain full marks.
  • Challenges with spelling may hinder creativity, causing individuals to lose their train of thought, or lead to the use of “safe” spellable words. 
This can impact upon expressive use 
of language, the inability to concisely 
describe things, or failure to use 
the correct terminology needed 
for the award of marks.
  • The strong focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar, and the specific marks awarded for SPaG in many of the essay-based subjects will impact upon the ability of dyslexic students to achieve the highest GCSE grades, irrespective of how well they can demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the subject.

Whilst access arrangements may provide some mitigation, summative assessment disadvantages dyslexic learners who have a comparative weakness in written ability compared to their overall ability.

There is therefore a strong case to look at methods of formative assessment. This measures attainment and progress more frequently using regular quizzes, tests and projects, and encourages learners to reflect on what they can do to take responsibility for their own learning to achieve their goals. These are then skills they carry through life.

Measures of school performance do not encourage learning

Measuring school performance is fraught with challenge and is not easy. But the current system in England disincentivises schools from welcoming learners with SEN across all measures, in particular:

  • Progress 8 – progress across 8 qualifications

    Progress 8 was introduced in 2016 as a ‘value added’ measure assessing pupils’ improvement over a five year period to encourage good quality teaching across a broad curriculum.

    As well as lots of issues raised with statistical problems and data accuracy, the key issue is that those who do not make good progress for various reasons adversely impact a school’s results: a small group of ‘low achievers’ can ‘distort’ the results for the whole school. This incentivises schools to look for ways to ensure that pupils with SEN don’t negatively affect their results. It also doesn’t take into account any context, whether SEN needs or socio-economic backgrounds.

    Worst of all, it also means that the progress some pupils make is not valued, when it is in fact important and often should be a source of pride for all.
  • Attainment in English and maths.

    Even when a pupil and their school have worked hard and they have achieved a grade 4 in English or maths, this is not counted in school league tables. Current performance measures only take into account ‘good passes’ of grades 5 and above.

    So schools are, again, encouraged to ensure their pupils can achieve this. They may urge pupils with SEN to seek education elsewhere.
  • Learners need skills for the workplace

    Finally, what is the point of education? The main aim of education should be the acquisition of skills valued in society. With the rise of automation and the use of AI used across modern life, these are increasingly skills like communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

    These are skills which tend to be dyslexic strengths but are not routinely studied or assessed at school. Many of those entering the workplace lack these key skills and much has been written about our national skills shortage. Critics point to our exams system with its strong focus on academic subjects as the reason for this, where there is little time or incentive to timetable activities outside of GCSEs to support the acquisition of key skills.
Pupils sat at desks taking formal examinations

Assessment reform – what is the way forward?

There are a mushrooming number of loudening voices across the education and political spectrum calling for reform to assessment at key stage 4.

We need to widen the scope of assessment. To provide better and earlier access to vocational pathways and functional skills qualifications as well as academic and technical subjects.

Reforms should be based on a person-centred approach, using a variety of assessment techniques relevant to today’s world. These could include:

  • Oral assessments which probe thinking
  • Open book examinations which focus on the application of knowledge rather than relying on memory to recall key facts
  • The reintroduction of coursework
  • Extended projects like the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) where independent research is encouraged
  • Building a portfolio of work (a ‘passport’ or ‘scorecard’) over a period of time which demonstrates an individual’s strengths over a range of knowledge and skills

Globally the main trend in assessment is a move towards using profiling to paint a more holistic picture of a learner’s strengths. The UK needs to catch up.

Exam reform was the topic for the September meeting of the APPG for Dyslexia and SpLD. You can view the recording and minutes from this meeting here.