Call for GCSE change - Alistair McConville in TES

Academic & Curriculum, Bedales Senior

Thanks to Covid-19, UK education has embraced unfamiliar teaching and assessment methodologies at an unprecedented scale, with exams disappearing. In an article for TES, Alistair McConville, Bedales Director of learning and Innovation, discusses how we might redesign our approach for young people to age 16, and considers attempts to break free from the exam-only route.

The International School of Geneva (Ecolint) is behind the Universal Learning Programme (ULP), now in in its third year of delivery. ULP’s starting point is that a modern education, leading to ‘deep understanding’ should be based on four developmental cornerstones: character, passion, mastery and collaboration. The ultimate purpose is that students work in transdisciplinary fashion towards an understanding of a life worth living – for themselves and others, as citizens of a compassionate, peaceful, interconnected society. When a student learns something, then, they are not simply mastering material, they are also giving consideration to its relevance to their own personal development, finding ways of linking it to their own interests and working with others to see how it can be used to improve the world.

Assessment of learning is teacher-designed and multifaceted, and leads to a final ‘passport’ – a transcript comprising subject grades; commentary on transdisciplinary projects; and narrative judgements about a student’s development against the four main pillars. The fluidity and responsiveness of this approach has been a huge strength during the Covid-19 crisis. The school was able to quickly tilt its assessment regime towards viva spoken examinations and further emphasis on self-led projects presented online when it became clear that the examined elements couldn’t run as planned.

Many of these students will apply for UK universities with no externally assessed qualifications, and Ecolint fully expects universities to make offers on the back of the value of the work that the students have done. Alistair says: “University admissions offices are far more flexible and willing to understand individual circumstances than some might suspect. It’s simply a myth that everyone has to present their transcript in the same form.”

Before Covid-19, we in the UK would no doubt have concluded that we couldn’t do anything so adventurous any time soon at scale. But times have changed, and this is just one of a number of examples globally of such a break with orthodoxy. Alistair concludes: “Something is most definitely afoot. A recent survey found that 86 per cent of UK school leaders supported the reform or scrapping of GCSEs as they stand. Perhaps, a silver lining of the horrors of Covid-19 will be the raising of yet more trumpets, Joshua-style, to bring the wretched walls of GCSEs finally tumbling down.”

The full article can be read on the TES website here (subscription may be required).