The impact of COVID-19 on school examinations in 2020 and 2021 has been devastating, yet it would be wrong to assume that all was well before the coronavirus took hold. Examinations at the age of 16 – historically, the school leaving age – have been a central feature of secondary education in England for decades. First came O-levels in 1951 (accompanied by CSEs from the early 1960s), followed by GCSEs in 1988. Although the role of GCSEs as a school-leaving qualification has essentially remained unchanged, the raising of the ‘participation age’ from 16 to 18 has prompted serious questions about whether academic-style examinations for all students at age 16 are still fit-for-purpose. In addition, critics of GCSEs complain about the burdens they place on pupils and teachers, their distorting effect on the curriculum and the punitive effects of the accountability system that accompanies GCSEs. The extraordinary events of the last year have also highlighted the fragility of any assessment system that relies so heavily on high-stakes terminal exams.

In contrast, supporters of GCSE frequently draw attention to their emphasis on a ‘broad and balanced’ range of subjects, their rigorous curricula and their function as a valid and recognised currency among different stakeholders. The challenge, then, is to redesign the assessment and accountability system so that it carries forward the strengths of GCSEs while addressing the concerns noted above. This report is the first of two publications from EDSK that aim to plot a new course for state-funded secondary education in England. Both reports start from the premise that for any set of reforms to succeed, they must deliver the following four objectives for secondary education as a whole:

  1. RIGOUR: all qualifications and training routes available in secondary schools and colleges must represent a high-quality programme of learning that prepares young people for the next stage in their educational journey.
  2. COHERENCE: the system of qualifications and associated assessments must be easy to understand and easy to navigate because it is based on a single coherent narrative and a single set of terminology.
  3. VALUE: all the programmes on offer to young people must be valued by all stakeholders, even if they serve different purposes for different learners.
  4. ASPIRATION: the secondary education system must encourage young people to progress in their learning and be aspirational about what they can achieve.

This first report analyses the early stages of secondary education in England, which presently culminates in GCSE examinations at age 16 for the vast majority of state school pupils.

The role of GCSEs in secondary education

As pupils in England are required to be in some form of education and training up to the age of 18, it is reasonable to conclude that the current approach of setting ‘school-leaving qualifications’ at age 16 is no longer required. The decision to maintain a full suite of national examinations at 16 also puts England at odds with most other developed nations. In fact, England is one of only six countries in the OECD that sets national/regional examinations at this age, as most choose instead to award a ‘certificate’ based mainly on internal assessments that allows pupils to progress to the next phase of secondary education.

The introduction of two accountability measures in recent years – the ‘EBacc’ and ‘Progress 8’ – has also resulted in academic GCSE subjects being explicitly prioritised over other subjects such as art, music and design & technology, leading to alarming falls in exam entries in these subjects. Research from the Department for Education (DfE) has shown that schools which have seen notable rises in exam entries for academic GCSEs appear to have achieved this by significantly downgrading non-academic subjects to the point where they were sometimes being taught after school or as optional activities. On a related note, the average number of subjects studied by pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 (age 16) has fallen from 11.2 subjects in 2010/11 to just 7.7 subjects in 2019, so one might assume that the demands facing students may have become more manageable over time. On the contrary, pupils can easily find themselves taking over 30 hours of written GCSE examinations at the end of Year 11 – a staggering total given that age 16 is no longer the point at which pupils finish their schooling.

The cost to schools of supporting this overbearing exam system is considerable. Secondary schools face an estimated annual bill of almost £200 million to deliver the current examination system at age 16. This is equivalent to around £52,500 per school and over £100,000 a year for some of the largest secondary schools. What’s more, the way in which GCSE exam papers are marked remains controversial. The use of ‘comparable outcomes’ essentially means that a pre-determined proportion of pupils must be awarded the lowest and highest grades irrespective of how well they perform in absolute terms. This fails to promote an aspirational mindset as one-third of pupils are destined to ‘fail’ each year. The GCSE resits policy compounds this issue because labelling pupils as having ‘failed’ English and / or maths at 16, only to insist that they should study these subjects beyond age 16, is counterintuitive at best.

The National Curriculum and statutory tests

Far from promoting a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, the current approach to Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) and Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) often pulls in the opposite direction. Although the National Curriculum requires pupils to study a wide range of subjects up to age 14, there is only a minimal set of requirements for teaching different subjects after this point. In fact, state-funded schools only have to offer one subject from each of the arts, design and technology, humanities and modern foreign languages in Key Stage 4. Worse still, academies (state-funded schools that operate outside of local authority control) are not required to follow the National Curriculum at all, meaning that there is not even a requirement to offer the full range of subjects at Key Stage 3 – let alone Key Stage 4. This has become a major point of controversy in recent months, with the chief executives of several large academy chains becoming embroiled in a fierce debate with Ofsted about whether it is appropriate to shorten Key Stage 3 down to two years to make room for delivering GCSEs over three years.

Beneath this public dispute lies a fundamental question about the curriculum in the first phase of secondary education. On the one hand, the DfE has explicitly given academies the freedom to design and implement their own curriculum. On the other hand, Ofsted appears to be using the National Curriculum as an informal benchmark for judging whether an academy’s curriculum has enough ‘breadth’ and ‘ambition’. There is evidently little agreement among stakeholders on which subjects should be provided across both Key Stage 3 and 4, and for how long. When academies can choose to ignore the National Curriculum altogether, this conflict between competing visions for Key Stage 3 was almost inevitable. The demise of SATs at the end of Key Stage 3, which were scrapped in 2008 following a collapse in the administration of these tests, has undoubtedly contributed to this fractious debate because an external assessment at age 14 would have strongly discouraged schools from narrowing their curriculum at the beginning of secondary school.

On a related note, the five-year wait from SATs at age 11 to GCSEs at age 16 is now the longest gap between statutory tests throughout primary and secondary education in England. Moreover, almost 60 per cent of OECD countries offer different curricula and programmes to those aged 15 or under – including high-performing countries such as Estonia, Japan, Korea, Slovenia and the Netherlands. In short, greater clarity is needed on the structure and purpose of this initial phase of secondary school so that all stakeholders and institutions are aligned around a single set of objectives for these vital years in every pupil’s educational journey.

Vocational qualifications as alternatives to GCSEs

GCSEs were originally intended to sit alongside a broad range of vocational qualifications that appealed to pupils with different interests and aptitudes. In 2010, only a third of students took GCSEs without any vocational qualifications alongside them, illustrating the appeal of non-academic courses. Following the 2010 General Election, thousands of vocational qualifications were stripped out of school performance tables due to concerns that schools were taking advantage of the fact that some of these qualifications counted for as much as four or even six GCSEs. Eliminating such ‘gaming’ behaviour is a legitimate goal for government policy, yet the crackdown on vocational qualifications has gone way beyond merely correcting these imbalances. In 2018, only 5 per cent of Key Stage 4 exam entries were ‘Technical Awards’ (approved vocational qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds), demonstrating how GCSEs utterly dominate the 14-16 curriculum in state-funded secondary education.

Despite these meagre exam entry figures, the impact that Technical Awards have on pupils should not be underestimated. For pupils in state-funded mainstream schools, taking a Technical Award was associated with a 23 per cent reduction in unauthorised absences, a 10 per cent reduction in fixed period exclusions and a 62 per cent reduction in permanent exclusions. What’s more, this pattern was repeated for pupils with Special Educational Needs. These outcomes suggest that, far from being a distraction, entry-level vocational qualifications can have a substantial positive impact on the pupils who select them.

Although numerous high-profile reviews in recent decades have decried the loss of vocational qualifications from the curriculum, the unequivocal preference for academic subjects within the current government’s EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures demonstrates how little value is now attached to vocational courses relative to their academic counterparts. If a government makes it clear that the best path to ‘success’ is to study a narrow range of academic subjects for the first five years of secondary school, there is little hope that vocational subjects will be given the space to thrive by school leadership teams across the country.

The institutions delivering secondary education

The most common type of secondary school in England is an 11-18 institution, with more schools of this kind than all the other schools and colleges combined. Nonetheless, there is a wide variety of institutions that any given pupil might end up attending. Depending on their local area, pupils can switch between secondary schools and colleges at either age 13, 14 or 16, yet the accountability measures for secondary schools continue to span the whole 11-16 age range. As a result, pupils might only attend 14-16 institutions such as University Technical Colleges (UTCs) for two years leading up to their GCSEs, yet UTCs are held to account for their pupils’ progress over the previous five years. As a result, the performance of 14-16 institutions can be made to look significantly weaker. Performance measures such as Progress 8 also do not fully recognise the technical and vocational elements of the curriculum in these institutions or the qualifications that the employer sponsors of UTCs want pupils to study.

In 2016, Sir Michael Wilshaw, then Chief Inspector at Ofsted, stated that “for far too long, we have let down millions of young people and allowed their talents to go to waste because we have not given the non-academic pathway into employment the priority it deserves.” He was also aware of the risk that UTCs in particular might “become a dumping ground for the difficult or disaffected”. Even though Michael Gove was not a fan of UTCs either during or after his stint as Education Secretary, he accepted in 2017 that “students whose poor academic prospects might hamper league table performance have been directed towards UTCs and higher-performing contemporaries have been warned off”. In response, the DfE required local authorities to write to parents of 13-year-old children to let them know about local UTCs. In addition, the ‘Baker Clause’ now requires every state school to give training providers and colleges access to pupils aged 8 to 13 to discuss technical education and apprenticeships. Unfortunately, the evidence thus far suggests that many schools are continuing to ignore their legal responsibilities, meaning that thousands of pupils could be missing out on attending institutions that better match their aspirations and talents. The current admissions system is evidently not able to cope with the variation in starting ages among different institutions or the conflicts of interest that the admissions system generates at present.


The unprecedented events in recent months have created a rare opportunity to consider how we can do things better in future. Hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds sitting up to 30 hours of onerous written examinations when they still have at least two more years of education or training ahead of them is plainly disproportionate and unnecessary. Meanwhile, the raising of the participation age to 18 demanded a recalibration of the assessment and accountability system in secondary schools and colleges that has simply never happened. Furthermore, some pupils are no longer receiving a broad and balanced curriculum in the run-up to their GCSEs, yet successive governments have refused to acknowledge or address this issue. The reticence of recent governments to discuss the movement of pupils between institutions at age 14 or promote vocational qualifications such as Technical Awards also serve to illustrate how GCSEs distort the education system well beyond the confines of the examination hall.

This report shows how, by 2025, we can move beyond the reliance on high-stakes GCSEs by replacing them with new low-stakes (yet equally challenging) digital assessments at age 15 that act as a ‘staging post’ for pupils on their journey towards the end of secondary education at age 18. This would be in stark contrast to the way that GCSEs are used to sort pupils and schools into successes and failures every year. Not only will these new digital assessments create a more effective and proportionate assessment system, the full set of recommendations in this report meet all four objectives for a high-performing secondary system – rigour, coherence, value and aspiration – in a way that the current system cannot match. Because low-stakes digital assessments can be delivered more flexibly in response to external shocks, this move towards digital assessments will also help to ‘COVID-proof’ our future school system. GCSEs have been an important part of our educational landscape for over three decades, but the time has come to consign them to the history books as we seek to build a secondary education system that helps all pupils progress as far as possible by the age of 18.


A new foundation for secondary education in England

  • RECOMMENDATION 1: The state-funded secondary education system in England should be formally divided into two phases: Lower Secondary (ages 11-15) and Upper Secondary (15-18). This will underpin a single approach to assessment, accountability, pupil admissions and the curriculum throughout the secondary system.

The content and structure of Lower Secondary education (ages 11 to 15)

  • RECOMMENDATION 2: Existing National Curriculum subject entitlements up to the age of 14 will be extended to age 15. The National Curriculum will also be made compulsory for all schools delivering the Lower Secondary phase of education, including academies.
  • RECOMMENDATION 3: GCSEs should be scrapped and replaced by national computer-based assessments in almost all National Curriculum subjects at age 15. The assessments will be completed online in the summer term of Year 10 and will typically last for 1.5-2 hours per subject. Subjects with a significant practical element (e.g. Art, PE) will continue to use practical assessments alongside the new computer-based tests.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4: The new computer-based assessments will test pupils’ understanding of essential knowledge, key concepts and terminology. To achieve this, the content for each assessment will be derived from the National Curriculum for Key Stage 3 plus the first year of the current GCSE specifications in each subject. This will ensure the new assessments are as rigorous and respected as GCSEs.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5: Having completed their computer-based assessments and practical work, each student will be awarded a ‘Lower Secondary Certificate’ (LSC) that documents the results they have achieved across all National Curriculum subjects. The LSC will show each student’s overall score as well as their percentile rank i.e. the proportion of other pupils who scored lower than them. No letter- or number-based grades will be issued and the current system of ‘comparable outcomes’ will be scrapped.

A new accountability system for Lower Secondary education

  • RECOMMENDATION 6: The new accountability system for Lower Secondary education will consist of two main measures for each school, which are calculated as three-year rolling averages: (i) Progress – the average progress made by learners between test phases (from SATs at age 11 to the new Lower Secondary tests at age 15) relative to the progress made by learners in other schools with similar SAT results; and (ii) Attainment – the overall average score achieved by learners across all Lower Secondary tests as well as their average scores in each subject. Both measures will be reported on a scale using one of the following descriptors: ‘well above average’, ‘above average’, ‘average’, ‘below average’ or ‘well below average’.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7: National standards in Lower Secondary education will be measured through ‘sample testing’ i.e. inserting a selection of identical questions into the different computer-based subject tests every year to monitor standards over time independently of the performance of pupils and schools.

Reconfiguring the institutions delivering secondary education

  • RECOMMENDATION 8: Lower Secondary education from the ages of 11 to 15 will be delivered by schools. Existing 11-16 schools will either reduce their provision by one year group or expand to become 11-18 institutions that encompass both the Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary phases. Schools that currently go up to age 13 (‘middle schools’) will either reduce their provision by two year groups or expand upwards to age 15 to provide the full Lower Secondary phase.
  • RECOMMENDATION 9: Pupils will choose which type of Upper Secondary provision (e.g. school, college or apprenticeship) that they wish to pursue after age 15 based on the results of their Lower Secondary subject tests as well as advice given to them and their parents by teachers and careers advisors.

This first report from EDSK on reforming assessment and accountability focuses on the initial stages of secondary education in England. Having configured the new Lower Secondary system up to the age of 15 in this report, the next publication from EDSK (scheduled for Spring 2021) will consider how to design and implement an Upper Secondary system from the ages of 15 to 18 that builds on the same objectives and principles described in this report. This will include in-depth discussions of existing academic and vocational qualifications as well as the institutions that deliver them.

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