Credits: Creative Commons-Sandwell Council
Credits: Creative Commons-Sandwell Council

UK: GCSE results put stress on students and undermine their learning opportunities

published 27 August 2019 updated 3 September 2019

Following the release of the results of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), UK education unions welcome the hard work of students and all those who have supported them, including education professionals, and stress the impact of these tests on students’ well-being and the need for a broad curriculum.

NEU: Assessment method of reformed GCSEs is significantly worse for the mental health of students

Congratulating students and their educators for the GCSE results, Nansi Ellis, National Education Union (NEU) Assistant General Secretary, explained that “it is a major concern, however, that according to NEU members the assessment method of the reformed GCSEs is significantly worse for the mental health of students”.

In the UK, the GCSE is an academic qualification, generally taken in several subjects by students in secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Removing coursework and having most subjects assessed entirely by exams taken at the end of Year 11 makes GCSEs “an all-or-nothing, high stakes experience for students, completely unnecessarily, and focuses study on what will be best for passing the exam, rather than on developing a wider skill set,” Ellis added.

Both the difficulty and size of GCSE content has increased with the reforms, so that the majority of schools feel forced to start GCSE courses in Year 9, or even earlier, with a view to getting through everything. This leads to a narrower curriculum for students and a 30 % decline in entries in non-English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects such as the arts, music, design and technology, physical education, religious education and social studies since 2016.

Ellis attributed this decline to Government accountability measures such as the EBacc and Progress 8, which force schools to focus on core academic subjects regardless of the interests of students, and to the inadequate funding of schools and colleges imposed by Conservative-led Governments.

To eliminate the numerous negative side effects of the current system, educators propose that schools should be freed from “the straitjackets” of Progress 8 and EBacc and empowered to act upon their professional expertise in helping students decide which courses to take.

Educators are not alone in their calls for reform. According to Ellis, “academics, think tanks and political figures from across the sector, such as former Education ministers and the current chair of the Education Select Committee, are joining education professionals in calling for the scrapping of these measures.”

NASUWT: young people’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum is undermined

Chris Keates, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) Acting General Secretary, stated that “the stability of the results year-on-year, despite the overhaul of the grading system and changes to the structure of the qualifications is a testament to the effort that pupils have put in and the dedication of their teachers in supporting their pupils to achieve their best.”

However, Keates highlighted NASUWT’s concern about the sharp decline in the number of GCSE entries in some non-EBacc subjects, such as religious studies and design and technology: “This is the inevitable outcome of the pressure on schools to prioritise EBacc subjects which has led to time for non-EBacc subjects being reduced in many schools and cuts to staffing and resources in these subjects.”

The NASUWT believes this undermines young people’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum and their opportunity to pursue a wide range of learning opportunities.