What could and should replace the IGCSE and GCSE?

“Students don’t currently have the soft skills needed to prepare them for the workplace”

It looks increasingly likely that a new system of post qualification offers from universities will replace the current system of offers being made before IB/BTEC and A Level results are announced.

This change inevitably raises the question about the value and current content of GCSEs and IGCSEs. If they are no longer needed to inform a university offer, are they still fit for purpose? Pat Moores of UK Education Guide looks at the options.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has insisted there are no plans to replace the GCSE exam but there are many in the sector who see the change in the university application process as providing the perfect opportunity to replace GCSEs.

As Mike Oliver, principal of Brooke House College states, “it simply cannot be sensible to maintain a qualification that clearly does not suit a great many of our young people who leave school without GCSE English or Mathematics and then spend time at a FE college or such like, trying to re-take these failed examinations before being able to access the jobs market in any meaningful way”.

From an international perspective there is much in favour of retaining the GCSE. For pupils coming from a different education system in Year Eight or Nine, GCSE exams are a great way to prep for A Level or IB study.

Gareth Collier, principal at Cardiff Sixth Form College argues, “the role that these qualifications play [are] beyond mere grades. In preparing pupils to understand and achieve well in the British education system could be undermined if they join the education system later and have less time to develop crucial English language skills that come with studying i/GCSEs in English, taught by native speakers.”

Also, as director of BAISIS (British Association of Independent Schools with International Students) Caroline Nixon points out, there needs to be a continued focus on “developing knowledge of a range of subjects and basic levels of literacy and numeracy”.

However, there is also an argument that for too many pupils, including some international students, an alternative qualification that better measures broader skills, rather than a narrow range of mostly academic subjects would be a better preparation for a post-Covid world.

It is highly debatable how GCSEs develop young people’s “soft skills’” These soft skills are likely to form the bedrock of future employability as so many “hard skills” will be automated in the coming decade.

Nearly two thirds of secondary school teachers (68%) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (64%) believe that students don’t currently have the soft skills needed to prepare them for the workplace.

The focus on an end of two year study period exam in each subject is probably not the greatest preparation to explore and develop the core soft skills such as:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Language skills
  • Cognitive or emotional empathy
  • Time management
  • Teamwork and leadership traits

So what are some possible alternatives?

There are qualification boards such as ASDAN that offer qualifications that help measure and develop soft skills. Through their Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, for example, young people can gain accreditations for work experience and charitable activities.

Also, some schools are trying to reimagine existing qualifications and introduce new qualifications to meet the skill gaps.

For example, whilst only currently offered in 6th form, Stoke College’s Diploma in Global Competencies offers a unique qualification that builds the crucial soft skills so many employers feel are not a priority within the current examination system:

Independent thinking and research skills in the pursuit of a personal passion, an understanding of global socio-economic issues as well as personal finance, the acquisition of basic language skills to communicate with people from many parts of the world, are some of the diploma’s key features.

Sports coaching qualifications, speech, music and drama qualifications allow students to draw upon and apply their individual strengths and passions, to achieve the diploma.

All one can hope is that the DfE consults widely. This is a once in a generation opportunity to create a new qualification that better meets the needs of more young people and the automated world they will be entering where ‘human’ soft skills will be at a premium.


About the author: Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide