Commission calls for ‘demoralising’ GCSE English to be replaced

GCSE English in schools should be scrapped and replaced by a new qualification that could be sat at any age between 15 and 19, putting an end to the government’s “wasteful” resits policy, a major commission has recommended.

The Forgotten Third commission, which was launched by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), suggests learners should sit a ‘Passport in English’ instead of GCSE English language, consisting of online assessment, a portfolio of a student’s writing, and a significant spoken English component.

The qualification would have various stages, from “entry level to operational proficiency to expert” for each skill area of reading, writing, and speaking and listening, which would be taken when a learner was ready.

The current system is demoralising and fails far too many young people at a crucial time in their lives

The current comparable outcomes system, whereby the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past, leads to around a third of learners failing to achieve a ‘standard pass’ – grade 4 – in English language every year, according to the commission.

In line with the Department for Education’s condition of funding rule, all 16 to 19 students who have achieved a grade 3 in English or maths are required to retake the subject until they do pass, while those with a grade 2 or lower have the option of taking the reformed functional skills qualifications instead.

Chief executive of the Association of Colleges David Hughes said the “failure” of such learners is “pointless and avoidable”, and “stage, not age” should determine a student’s ability to gain a qualification.

“The current system is demoralising and fails far too many young people at a crucial time in their lives,” he added.

ASCL are spot on with identifying the problem

Commission chair Roy Blatchford, writing for FE Week, said “The Passport would be a highly respected qualification for a new era which better reflects the full achievements of all students and supports progression to a wide range of pathways.”

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said the “groundbreaking proposal” would make the exam system more “humane”, and is “geared towards the language skills needed by employers”.

The commission has suggested, as a means of testing each skill area, an online assessment for reading; an interview with someone from the business world for speaking and listening; and a task involving collating information from articles for the writing test, much like is done in the A-level English language exam.

It concludes that the current GCSE English Language specification is not fit for purpose because it focuses on a restrictive choice of writing tasks with an emphasis on literary analysis, rather than on competency in English.

The commission has also suggested a companion ‘Passport in Maths’ qualification.

There are other options to GCSE English language currently out there: reformed functional skills qualifications in English and maths are now up and running, and are favoured by sector bodies such as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.

Its chief executive Mark Dawe said: “ASCL are spot on with identifying the problem.

“However, we don’t think that we should be introducing any more possible confusion for employers. 

“Functional skills are a strengthened and well-respected alternative and we would like to work with ASCL to ensure that this is the preferred solution to the concerns raised.”

Asked why the commission doesn’t suggest making better use of functional skills, Blatchford said: “We don’t doubt the merits of the new functional skills qualification, but the point of the report is to design a new qualification which would replace GCSE English Language, be taken by all students and support development over time, and we think this aim is best served by a new type of qualification.”

But this could all be for nought, as the Department for Education has today said the education secretary has promised not to change the national curriculum.

A spokesperson said: “We have dramatically reformed GCSEs over the past five years to ensure young people are leaving school ready for the world of work, while also adapting functional skills qualifications, including English, to better meet students’ needs post-16 and ensure they have a strong grasp of essential skills like reading, writing and maths.”