Radical Changes to Education – Ditch Exams at Sixteen


The UK is the only European country which subjects sixteen-year-olds to high stakes examination.  Well, until this year or course. Finland is the highest performing European country educationally and one of the best performing countries in the world and yet it does not subject its children to this kind of examination until matriculation, taken at the age of eighteen.  This is similar to other high performing countries like Denmark, Japan, China etc. 

Not all European education systems are perfect – every system has its faults – but I believe the Department of Education should consider how we teach our students as well as how we test them?   

GCSEs and their predecessors, O levels and CSEs, were designed for an education system of the twentieth century, when a significant proportion of children left school at sixteen (or earlier) and went into work.  Then, it was important school leavers had some qualifications they could use to apply for jobs.  But today, children are expected to be in full time education or training until eighteen.  Apart from a link to the past and a nod to the ‘traditionalists’ on the right who believe in testing, testing and testing, what purpose do GCSE examinations actually serve? 

This year GCSEs and A-Levels will be awarded based on some kind of teacher assessment.  The process used this year is deeply flawed as it links a school’s performance (and hence the performance of its students) not to the actual students that year but to the past performance of that school.  Exam boards have been left under no illusion that schools where performance seems to improve significantly (and this does happen sometimes – especially when a school is in a transition phase) these schools will be looked at through a very critical microscope and risk having all their students’ results downgraded.  

But the use of continuous assessment to measure progress at sixteen is not without its merits if done properly. This year’s assessment criteria was foisted upon schools, quite understandably, at the last minute. This is why it has significant flaws, but a better thought out system is possible and this hiatus in high stakes testing gives us an opportunity to look into this for all sixteen-year-olds. 

Employers of sixteen-year-olds want to know about the competence in Mathematics and English and whether an applicant has the ‘soft skills’ required to become a good trainee and employee.  These soft skills are ones that an interview is often used to detect and assess.  Does an applicant have the required social skills for the role required?  Is their timekeeping and appearance up to scratch?  Are they reliable and willing to learn new skills?  Can they apply basic common sense in the workplace?  None of these are assessed in the exam room.  It is only when making the big jump to higher education where specific knowledge in certain academic areas becomes really important, which is why I believe A level examinations should remain as the gold standard.

In Year Eleven, students could be continuously (and rigorously) assessed throughout the year. Students would know each piece of work contributes to their overall performance rather than a high stakes lottery – also known as a GCSE examination.  I believe behaviour would improve, as would mental health and attendance. The well-being of teachers would also improve.  

Teachers should be trusted to assess students through the year and give an indication of progress in their subject area.  Schools could be used to work collaboratively to ensure the rigour is there and the system isn’t being abused.  Even the dark lords at OfSTED could serve a purpose here if really necessary.  

The gains of ditching high stakes testing at sixteen far outweigh any losses.  The only barriers to this are those that employ the tired thinking of old that are still stuck in the nineteenth and twentieth century image of what education should be like – a system which bears absolutely no comparison with the world of work in the twenty-first century. 

The next few academic years are going to be massively hit by the repercussions of COVID.  We could use this period to ensure the age of sixteen is what it is supposed to be – a staging post to the next stage of a child’s compulsory education and not a brutal introduction to high stakes testing.  We ought to ditch testing at sixteen and ensure we are releasing young adults into the world of work and higher education at eighteen academically, socially and mentally strong.   

Wayne Chadburn is a mathematics teacher and columnist for Liberal Base. He lives in Penistone, South Yorkshire where he serves as a Town Councillor. Wayne blogs at waynechadburn.wordpress.com and Tweets @waynechadburn.