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Are GCSEs no longer fit for purpose?

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

The new Chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, Tory MP Robert Halfon, has sparked a national debate after saying that GCSEs (only recently reformed) should be scrapped and replaced by a broader qualification that recognises both academic and technical/vocational skills, alongside personal development. Halfon, MP for Harlow and former Further Education Minister, argues that the current education system in England needs a dramatic and radical overhaul if we are to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution, or the ‘march of the robots’ as he calls it. The Fourth Industrial Revolution changes everything It’s frequently said that many of the jobs that children who are currently at primary school will end up doing when they leave school haven’t even been invented yet.

Furthermore, it’s predicted that the onset of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will put paid to as much as 50% of today’s jobs, rendering them completely defunct.

What’s more, there is a wide acceptance that the days of school leavers walking into a trade or career after school or college and remaining there for life is an idea that is completely out-of-date and now confined to history. It can certainly be argued that we have failed to appreciate the enormity of the scale of change that automation will cause in the workplace.

It’s obvious that young people need to develop a wide set of technical skills alongside traditional subject knowledge if they are to cope – let alone thrive – in an automated digital age. What are the alternatives to GCSEs? Halfon is not advocating that GCSEs be scrapped overnight.

However, he does believe they be replaced over time by a Baccalaureate qualification at age 18 that would recognise pupils’ ability in both the academic and vocational sides of education. Of course, the current GCSEs have hardly been bedded-in at schools yet.

Phase 3 subjects (the final phase) will be sat for the first time in the summer, in a reform process that has been challenging for all concerned. The brainchild of the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, the reformed GCSEs were intended to be more robust and challenging and are the flagship of the Tory government’s relentless drive towards all things academic. Critics have said all along that they are far too narrow and that they discriminate against pupils who are less academic.

Indeed, there has been a steady stream of criticism levelled at the new GCSEs from every angle, ranging from celebrity actors complaining about the devaluing of arts subjects on the curriculum to worried parents anxious about how their dyslexic children will cope with the demands of the new exam system. There is an irony that calls for change are now coming from inside the Tory camp.

Halfon has criticised the knowledge-focused curriculum and the way that performance measures have put pressure on teachers to train to the test.

Rote learning has been the focus, instead of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

The real irony is that Halfon clearly is looking forward (quite rightly) and considering what education system we might need in 30 years’ time, at exactly the time when we have put in place a GCSE system that has taken us back 30 years – to a system very much like the old ‘O’ Levels of the 1980s. Reflecting the concerns of the many not the few To borrow a popular political slogan, it’s fair to say that Halfon’s suggestions are likely to garner much support, from teachers, parents and pupils, as well as business leaders and employers of all types across all sectors.


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