Alternatives to GCSEs - what and why
It is commonly assumed that all pupils needs to pass GCSEs at 16. This is not true, for many reasons. This section of our website looks at those reasons. It also outlines the main reasons why the MYP is a better qualification than GCSEs. Please let us know of any errors or any further information which you require.
Qualifications are an overgrown thicket of acronyms and technical jargon and can be bewildering. Even the framework of levels is no longer agreed between the countries of the UK, let alone with Europe.
The latest framework in England is the RQF (Regulated Qualifications Framework). It distinguishes nine levels:
0. Entry level
1. Level 1: GCSE grades 1-3
2. Level 2: GCSE grades 4-9, MYP, Level 2 Certificates etc
3. Level 3: A level, IB Diploma
4. Level 4: Higher National Certificate
5. Level 5: Foundation Degree
6. Level 6: Bachelor's Degree
7. Level 7: Master's Degree, PGCE
8. Level 8: Ph.D / D.Phil
Typically a qualification called an "Award" means less than 120 hours total qualification time (TQT); a Certificate is 120- 370 hours and a Diploma is over 370 hours. Total qualification time for most GCSEs is 120 hours and they are usually studied over 2 years in Years 10 and 11 of secondary school. Details for every qualification can be found on the Ofqual Register.
GCSEs: Ten Problems
“We absolutely need to move from a curriculum that is “knowledge-rich” to one that is “knowledge-engaged” – not learning facts for their own sake but understanding how to put them to use to build and communicate a rich argument or solve a problem. It is now time for education policy to catch up…. That means quietly putting to sleep the GCSE exams that I introduced and that have now had their day.”
– Kenneth Baker, former Secretary of State for Education, 2019
Much of the material presented in schools strikes students as alien, if not pointless.”
– Howard Gardner
“Schools have not necessarily much to do with education…they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.”
– Winston Churchill
Who does not recall school at least in part as endless dreary hours of boredom punctuated by moments of high anxiety?”
– Daniel Goleman
“I believe that school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there.”
– Petronius, Satyricon
“What’s the difference between a bright, inquisitive five-year-old, and a dull, stupid nineteen-year-old? Fourteen years of the British educational system.”
– Bertrand Russell
"I cringe to look at a GCSE curriculum"
- Simon Jenkins, The Guardian
The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) were introduced in 1986 to establish a qualification for those leaving education at 16. THIS IS PROBLEM ONE
Between 2005 and 2010 most of the coursework elements (modular) were lessened and the final-exam (linear) became more important. Further reforms between 2015 and 2018 replaced the old letter grades with numerical grades and removed all coursework elements completely. THIS IS PROBLEM TWO
GCSEs are examined by three different awarding organisations in England: AQA, OCR and Pearson Edexcel. There are also boards for Wales and Northern Ireland. All five boards are overseen by the JCQ which inspects exam centres, and sets the regulations for administering exams (delivery of papers, invigilation, collection and marking). THIS IS PROBLEM THREE
From around 2011 governments have been pushing the idea of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as an ideal balanced curriculum which state schools SHOULD aim for. The subjects included are:
1. Maths [1 qualification]
2. English Language and English Literature 
3. Science (Combined) or 3 of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computing. [2 or 3]
4. Humanities (History or Geography) 
5. Foreign Language (either Modern or Ancient) 
(We use the acronym MESH to remember the first four, core, subjects). The total number of qualifications taken in the EBacc is thus 7 or 8. One immediate criticism was that all the creative and vocational subjects were excluded. THIS IS PROBLEM FOUR
The traditional benchmark for passing level at GCSE level used to be a C grade and is now a 4. Good data exists showing the percentage of all entries which are pass marks or higher for every year since 1988. This is summarised below:
In thirty years the number of entries at pass level or above has increased by almost 60%. It is hard to see how this does not classify as the dreaded grade inflation. THIS IS PROBLEM FIVE
According to a report in the Independent students in 2019 were subjected to more exams and spent longer in the exam hall than their 2016 counterparts. While a GCSE student in 2016 had an average of 18 exams to prepare for, totalling 24.5 hours, the average examinee in 2019 sat 22 exams – for a total of 33 hours.
The impact this is having on students' mental health is beginning to be revealed. The TES reported that 76% of headteachers who were asked about this reported students suffering panic attacks, 65% reported students suffering from depression, and 56% reported that students were self-harming. This is a shocking finding: in over half of all schools some students are self-harming because of the pressure of GCSEs. THIS IS PROBLEM SIX
There are two measures of how well a test measures what it is supposed to test. The first is Reliability, which refers to the consistency of a measure - whether the same results can be reproduced under the same conditions. Because exams are one-time only events we don't have much data to go on, but the simple fact that they are one-time events must mitigate against their reliability. Performance on a single day, with all the variables of sleep, anxiety, actual questions, revision practice, motivation and so on must surely mean that as a measure it is less reliable than data collected over multiple events at multiple times. THIS IS PROBLEM SEVEN
The second measure of a test is validity, which refers to the accuracy of a measure - whether the results do represent what they are supposed to measure. Here we do have some data to work with because we can compare results at GCSE with results at A level. If GCSE outcomes are measuring some underlying degree of knowledge and interest in a subject then there should be strong correlations between scores at GCSE and scores at A levels, only two years later. Ofqual did this analysis in 2017 looking at all A level candidates in every subject in 2013. Correlations varied between subjects from a low of 0.54 to a high of 0.64 which are all moderate correlations. This means that only about 25% of the variability of the A level grades is accounted for by the GCSE grades! This surely raises some doubt about the validity of GCSE grades as a measure of aptitude? THIS IS PROBLEM EIGHT
This is becoming increasingly talked about but is hard to pin down. Students (and parents and journalists) regularly complain of the boredom and the pointlessness of their study but this is hardly scientific. Within the IB approach there is an explicit definition of the areas (or dimensions) of learning which should be measured: Knowledge, Understanding, Skills and Attributes (KUSA). The best criticism of GCSEs is that they concentrate almost exclusively on the first of these dimensions, which happens to be the one which is becoming most easily replaced by technology. THIS IS PROBLEM NINE
The GCSE qualification is recognised in England and Wales, but not Scotland. It is also officially recognised in some former Commonwealth territories, such as Gibraltar and Nigeria. Otherwise it is only transferred to other countries with difficulty. THIS IS PROBLEM TEN
Vocational qualifications (VQs) in general are work-related qualifications, which means they concentrate on the Knowledge and Skills needed for specific workplaces. Because of this, the range and variety of vocational qualifications at Levels 1 and 2 is enormous. They are a good option for students who know early on in their education what type of career they want to follow. The better known frameworks include:
BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council)
Cambridge Nationals and Technicals: 2 year course for 14-16 year olds.
Functional Skills: essentially literacy and numeracy (used to be called Key Skills)
City and Guilds, eg the new TechBac
NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications): awarded by a plethora of very career-specific awarding bodies
There are too many subjects to list but some of the better known ones are:
Accounting, Animal care, Beauty therapy, Construction, Child Development, Food technology,
Hairdressing, Hospitality, Journalism, Plumbing, Retail.
Snobbery about vocational qualifications appears to be widely entrenched (sample articles here, here, here, and here); but there are counter-movements, such as the rise of 'artisans' in all areas, such as the butcher, the baker, the candle maker (all local companies), and the appearance of books such as Head, Hand and Heart by David Goodhart and the wonderful, austere "Truck" by John Jerome (full title "On Rebuilding a Worn-Out Pickup and Other Post-Technological Adventures"), not to be confused with the whimsical "Truck" by Michael Perry (full title "A Love Story").
“Joinery, it now occurs to me, must be the foundation of all craft. You put two things together to make something else, to accomplish some purpose; the better they fit, or work together, the greater the pleasure from the making.”
(John Jerome, Stone Work, 1989)
Other National and International Qualifications
The International GCSE is simply an internationalised version of the UK GCSEs. For each subject the syllabus is essentially the same but the examples and scenarios are all global rather than UK-based. Two exam boards now offer IGCSES, Cambridge and Pearson, and they are very widely used across the world.
In the UK Ofqual does not currently recognise IGCSEs and so, even though all universities recognise them, state schools are not permitted to teach them. This has led to suggestions that private schools cheat the system by doing 'easier' GCSEs but there is no evidence to support this and many teachers feel that ICGSEs are actually harder than GCSEs.
The IGCSE was originally developed by the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), now rebranded as Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE). Please bear with me as the next bit is complicated.
CAIE is part of Cambridge Assessment, the trading name of UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) which is a non-teaching department of Cambridge University. Rather bizarrely in 2021 Cambridge Assessment merged with Cambridge University Press (the oldest university press in the world) and is now called Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
Even more confusingly Cambridge Assessment includes the GCSE board OCR as one of its examination boards. These relationships are as complex as you would expect from an ancient University!
UCLES: trading name was
Cambridge Assessment, now rebranded as
Cambridge University Press and Assessment
OCR (does GCSEs)
Cambridge Assessment International Education (does IGCSEs)
The Cambridge IGCSE is currently taught in more than 4500 schools in over 140 countries and over 70 subjects.
The Pearson IGCSE is much smaller: it is currently taught in more than 80 countries and is available in 37 subjects.
A very recent entrant to the field is the OxfordAQA IGCSE which is a partnership between Oxford University Press and AQA. But it is not clear if there is room in the marketplace for another competitor - they have their work cut out.
At Wotton House we use the Cambridge Primary Curriculum in our Prep department. We discuss this in more detail here. This is the first stage of the 'Cambridge Pathway' which offers the Cambridge Lower Secondary (11-14) before the Cambridge Upper Secondary (the IGCSEs we have been discussing) and then Cambridge Advanced for 16-19 year olds.
Cambridge International Certificate of Education (ICE)
One final aspect of the Cambridge IGCSE is worth discussing. The Cambridge ICE is a certificate which can be gained by passing seven subjects from five different subject Groups:
The seven subjects are made up by taking two Languages (ie normally English and another language), one from each of the next four Groups and a seventh from any of the Groups. As a model this is far more balanced than the EBacc, with the inclusion of vocational and creative subjects - and very similar to the MYP approach, as we outline below. Unfortunately it is almost completely unknown in the UK - no schools offer it at all! Cambridge claim that it is popular in the USA and South America but not many schools appear on a google search.
In the USA secondary education covers the years 11-18 (grade 6 to grade 12). The first three years are often at Middle School, or Junior High; the final four years are at High School, or Senior High. In general, secondary education ends with the award of a High School Diploma at the age of 17 or 18 - normally in at least 6 subjects but this varies from state to state. There are no high stakes exams at 16 or any equivalent to GCSEs. However, universities in the UK tend to treat High School Diplomas as academically equivalent to GCSEs and not A levels.
In Ireland the systems is similar to the UK with one big difference. The Junior Certificate is taken at 16 after a three year course in 9-11 subjects. The Leaving Certificate is taken at 18 after a two year course, normally covering 6-8 subjects.
The difference in this (courtesy of Wikipedia): "There is an optional year in many secondary schools in Ireland known as Transition Year, which some students choose to take after completing the Junior Certificate, and before starting the Leaving Certificate. Focusing on broadening horizons, the year is often structured around student projects such as producing a magazine, charity work, or running a small business. Regular classes may be mixed with classes on music, drama, public speaking, and with work experience". This seems like an inspired idea and I am surprised it is not better known, nor more widely copied.
This is a different model from any of the others we have considered. Secondary education lasts 8 years from 11 to 19, divided into two stages. The first ends at 14 with a final exam which awards a diploma. Students are then assigned to one of three streams, Humanities, Science or Vocational, for the next 5 years but covering the full range of subjects.
V. Professional and Creative
Many schools, in the UK and overseas, are exploring alternatives to GCSEs. Some have been going for years and some are very speculative. The main forum for discussing alternatives is Rethinking Assessment. According to this Guardian article even Gavin Baker who devised GCSEs now thinks they need replacing. Articles such as this, regularly appear with titles like "GCSEs are a waste of time" but they usually turn out to be frustratingly short on detail, if long on similar quotes:
“I think many heads would say that in thirty years time, maybe sooner, we’ll look back and say what we were doing now with young people is the equivalent of what the Victorians did with building their school rooms with windows high up so they couldn’t look out, and putting people in dunce caps,” Rose Hardy, head of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls told a conference earlier in November (2019).
This section looks at three published frameworks intended for widespread use and four individual school's curricula. Please send details of others if you feel they should be added.
International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC)
Fieldwork Education was founded in 1984 by two headteachers as a consultancy to help schools; backed by Shell it launched the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) in 2000 and the IMYC in 2011. In 2013 it became part of Nord Anglia Education which owns a 'family' of 78 international schools. Its only UK presence is in Oxford where it bought Oxford International College, Oxford Sixth Form College and d'Overbroecks College in March 2021.
The IPC is used in over 1,000 schools in over 90 countries. It is based around thematic units of learning and aims to develop eight personal goals which are very reminiscent of the IB Learner Profile: Adaptable, Communicator, Collaborator, Empathetic, Ethical, Resilient, Respectful, Thinker. We used it at Cambridge International School and it is a lot of fun.
The IMYC is a curriculum developed for 11-14 year olds and is built around the idea of conceptual Big Ideas which link different subjects together. Again this looks like a straight borrow from the IB. Fieldwork do not disclose how many schools use the IMYC but Forest International School in Paris say on their website that it is used by 103 schools in 50 countries.
Universal Learning Programme (ULP)
In the world of international education Ecolint (the International School of Geneva) is one of the most revered names - one of the largest international schools and probably the oldest. Many of the pioneers of the IB worked there, which makes this new development rather surprising. Ecolint's Grande Boissière campus has worked with Unesco's International Bureau of Education to produce a new programme for secondary education, called the Universal Learning Programme (ULP). This has been written up in glowing terms in the TES here and here.
The claim seems to be that "modern education should be based on four developmental cornerstones, or competencies: character, passion, mastery and collaboration." An approach that flows from these will lead to authentic "deep understanding". There is not enough detail here, or on the Ecolint website to really examine these claims or to see how it works in practice.
The RSA (Royal Society of Arts) launched a new framework called Open Minds in the early 2000s. The idea is a competency-based framework covering five broad domains: Citizenship, Learning, Managing Information, Relating to People, Managing Solutions (CLIPS). However, these are very much a close relative of the MYP's Approaches to Learning (ATL) which has been central to the MYP since its inception.
The RSA website makes some strong claims:
"A competence based approach enables students not just to acquire subject knowledge but to understand, use and apply it in the within the context of their wider learning and life. It also offers students a more holistic and coherent way of learning which allows them to make connections and apply knowledge across different subject areas. Opening Minds was developed and supported by the RSA and is now being used in over 200 schools across the country."
The RSA set up RSA Academies in 2011 to sponsor schools. It grew to become a family of 9 schools in the West Midlands but is closing down on March 31, 2022, having, apparently, "accomplished its purposes". The impression is that it is fading away, to paraphrase Eliot, not with a bang or even a whimper.
This famously progressive school developed its own qualification called Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) were born, with a heavy emphasis on research, extended writing, discussion and – above all – the development of “inquisitiveness and independent thought”.
As a response to frustration with traditional syllabuses, Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSCs) focus on developing independent investigation skills, and are now offered in seven subjects, including a pioneering technology and robotics.
St Edwards School, Oxford
The St Edward’s School Certificate (SESC) is an integrated programme that respects the direct relationships between the way young people are taught, what they learn and how they learn. St Edwards assesses students work within a textured final folio. The folios are examined against 4 equally weighted criteria: Knowledge; Creativity; Communication; and Self-Management. This looks to me like a direct copy from the MYP.
Acorn School, Nailsworth
One of the articles on Ecolint referenced above points out that Acorn School has successfully avoided all public examinations yet still managed to have students accepted at universities worldwide.
The article ends with a hopeful call to arms: "An Association of School and College Leaders survey in the UK found that 86 per cent of leaders supported the reform or scrapping of GCSEs as they stand. Perhaps, hopefully, possibly, a silver lining of the horrors of Covid-19 will be the raising of yet more trumpets, Joshua-style, to bring the wretched walls of GCSEs finally tumbling down."
Rather oddly all of the well-known alternative schools, such as those listed in this article in Green Parent (2018), offer mainstream GCSEs or A levels: eg Sands School, Steiner Academy Exeter, New Forest Small School, Brockwood Park, Brighton Steiner, Michael Hall and Elmfield.
À propos du programme de premier cycle secondaire du baccalauréat international
À la Wotton House International School, nous sommes fiers de n'être que l'une des 15 écoles autorisées à enseigner le Programme du Baccalauréat International (PPCS), un programme d'éducation hautement respecté et internationalement reconnu pour les enfants de 11 à 16 ans. Il mène naturellement aux programmes de diplôme et de carrière du Baccalauréat International pour les candidatures universitaires dans le monde entier.
The table below summarises what we think are the main differences between the GCSE programme and the MYP, with reference also to the other main international curricula which we know about.
In an article I wrote for Independent Education Today in 2020 I outlined some of the reasons why we believe that the MYP is a better preparation for adult life than GCSEs. There have also been a series of articles in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) outlining the benefits of the MYP, such as this one by Ian Thurston and this one by Emily Hardwicke. The TES also published my piece called "We're a UK school teaching the IB's MYP - here's why." This seems not to be available on the TES website any longer but surprisingly is referenced in the Wikipedia article on the MYP.
The TES also published an article outlining four ways teachers want GCSEs changed:
Over 80 % of FE and secondary teachers thought that it was better to award GCSEs and A levels based on continuous assessment throughout the course "rather than rely on final high-stakes exams alone".
Nearly two-thirds of teachers – 65 % – said that the range of subjects they feel they can offer at key stages 4 and 5 is limited by funding and accountability pressures.
Teachers also felt strongly that they should be given more responsibility for assessments."78 % of teachers said they wanted more autonomy for conducting summative assessment."
So the question has to be, if the MYP is so good, why has it not been more widely adopted in the UK? There are obviously many factors at work but one of them seems to be the widely-held belief that GCSEs are essential for our children's future. I hope that the rest of this website will go some way to convincing you that the MYP is more than sufficient as preparation for the future, and in practice, is richer, longer-lasting and more stimulating.