Some GCSEs are more equal than others

There is one idea that shackles our thinking about GCSEs. It is a false idea which we cannot seem to shake off. It is the idea that all GCSEs are equal. The belief that GCSEs have parity is an illusion. The desire that all GCSEs should be equal is a honeytrap.

Why has parity become central to our conception of the examination system?

Parity is an important concept in measurement. Measuring length using your actual foot is imprecise because everyone’s feet are a different size. The standardisation of ‘feet’ as a being twelve inches in length creates a shared meaning. Two people who are six feet tall are both, we can conclude, the same height.

GCSE exams are a measurement. But of what? Once we may have believed that the point of exams was to measure innate ability. Today, we may claim that GCSEs measure what knowledge has been learnt. What we cannot agree on is whether this acquisition of knowledge is due to a student’s aptitude for a subject, diligence in study, the quality of teaching they have received, or the advantage bestowed by their upbringing or social class. And still we infer a student’s future potential, choosing to believe that general success up until this point is the best indicator of future achievement.

Once the stock of knowledge is measured, the qualification becomes a commodity. Commodities only have value if they are a) scarce, and b) desired. Good GCSE grades must be rationed. High achievement signals the possession of a quality – the readiness for further study, conscientiousness, the ability to be ‘schooled’.

But we expect GCSEs to not only be a commodity, but a currency: a means of transaction. For a currency to be effective it must be durable, portable, divisible, uniform, scarce and acceptable. GCSEs are the currency by which we buy opportunity. We must possess enough of this currency to access higher level qualifications, to get into elite institutions, to be awarded the most prestigious work. Currencies require parity. One gold coin must be equal to another gold coin. There must be a unit of value if we are to accumulate wealth and exchange it for the things we want.

Unfortunately, GCSEs are not a uniform unit of value. The parity we long for does not exist.

For GCSEs to be of equal value, we would presumably need the same amount of time to study each of them. And yet we allocate different amounts of time to each. In my school, ‘optional’ subjects are allocated 5 hours of teaching time per fortnight. However, maths is allocated 6 hours. English – a subject for which students take two GCSEs – gets 7 to do both, whereas the double award science qualification gets 9.

For GCSEs to be of equal value, we would presumably need to study them over the same time period. And yet we teach students some subjects from primary school, whilst others are only introduced at the start of Year 10. How can we claim that a maths GCSE (which takes 12 years of study) is equal to a Sociology GCSE (that is taught from scratch in 2 years)?

For GCSEs to be of equal value, we would presumably need to show that they were equal in difficulty. And yet some subjects appear straightforward for most students to grasp, whilst others are accessible only to a minority.

The consequence of the above is that it is a nonsense to claim that a grade 4 in one GCSE is ‘equal’ to a grade 4 in another: or to claim that two students with the same grade profile, but across different subjects, have achieved the same. Counting up GCSEs and totting up grades can’t possibly lead to meaningful comparisons.

Yet we do so. We set entrance criteria for post-16 study in this way. More bizarrely, we publish tables of GCSE results as an indicator of school quality.

Measuring knowledge is worthwhile, despite the difficulties of doing so and the danger of making false inferences about the student. Commodifying this data so that we can make decisions about suitability for further study is an inevitable requirement at the point at which education pathways diverge. But neither of these purposes requires parity. It is only when you begin to treat GCSEs as a currency that the need for parity emerges.

To illustrate this, consider what information a maths teacher needs to judge whether a student is ready and able to take A Level maths. They would want to know that a certain level of proficiency in the subject has been achieved up to this point. This requires measurement and commodification (a GCSE grade, for instance). Similarly, a Psychology teacher may want to know that a prospective A Level student has some mathematical ability and writing proficiency. They may be most interested in the student’s maths and English GCSE grades. It does not matter to the Psychology teacher whether these GCSEs are ‘equal’, merely that a certain level of proficiency and knowledge has been reached. For the purposes of steering students towards suitable post-16 study, there is simply no need to have a pretence of parity across qualifications. And as education and training continues beyond the age of 16 for all students nowadays, what other purpose would such a system serve?

Well of course we know the answer. Without this pseudo-parity, school league tables would fall apart. Given the shaky foundations they are built on, would that be such a bad thing?

I am not calling for an overhaul of GCSE exams. Far from it – gradual evolution is preferable. But I am calling out the illusion of GCSE parity. It is getting in the way of us moving to a better approach. GCSEs are not equal to each other, and neither do they need to be.

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