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An alternative to GCSEs: Reuniting curriculum, pedagogy and assessment

Written by: Hugh Stephens
4 min read
Hugh Stephens, Head of Geography, St Edward’s School, UK

We expect from education that our children become knowledgeable, successful learners, equipped to become good citizens and socially responsible change-makers. Yet there are those who believe that education today has been tightly calibrated towards the task of getting children through exams, rather than preparing them for life (Astle, 2018). The pandemic has served to highlight the need to review approaches to assessment, adding fervour to the national debate.

Particular attention must be given to GCSEs, initially introduced as O-levels at a time when fewer than 20 per cent of students continued in education beyond the school leaving age (Bolton, 2012) and students needed certification of their school achievements. Now, with 87 per cent of students remaining in formal education beyond age 16 (DfE, 2019), there are growing questions about whether GCSEs in their current form are the right approach.

Introducing Perspectives and Pathways courses at St Edward’s School has offered an alternative route. Externally monitored by the University of Buckingham, they are founded in an intention to challenge students to develop a broad range of academic skills, whilst tailoring their learning towards the areas of topics that inspire them most. Pathways courses are those with a direction towards certain university and career routes, principally in sciences and the creative arts. Perspectives courses focus on socio-cultural issues and offer different lenses through which to explore traditional humanities subjects. All students study a minimum of one of each, in addition to the core programme of GCSEs. Crucially, the content of these courses goes beyond subjects taught routinely in schools, extending into engineering, entrepreneurship, sound design and oceanography, to name but a few.

This has paved the way to more interdisciplinary learning, which in turn has facilitated the growth of richer knowledge. Only by having depth of knowledge can students begin to investigate from multiple perspectives and develop their thinking skills (Lennon, 2020). Content-heavy GCSEs, which promote breadth rather than depth of knowledge, have a stranglehold over this process of independent exploration and analysis of perspectives, where there is simply not the time to promote it. That is not to say that Pathways and Perspectives courses result in less knowledge than a GCSE course; rather, the knowledge emerging is deeper, richer and, importantly, more personal.

A continuous assessment model underpins the courses, which offers opportunities for students to demonstrate the full range of their capabilities when compared with the narrow scope of a terminal GCSE exam. Students curate portfolios containing significant pieces of work, which are assessed holistically across objectives to make judgements about written and spoken communication, research, ideation, creativity, collaboration and self-management. The portfolio approach allows students to take responsibility for their learning – documenting and reflecting on their individual growth. A range of open-ended tasks allows students to be creative in their responses and in demonstrating their competence in relation to assessment criteria. The variation in tasks on these courses is significant, making them richer in both content and assessment than single-project qualifications. This serves to benefit students who find it challenging to excel in traditional exam-based assessment. Crucially, it facilitates formative feedback, taking the form of an ongoing dialogue about the pathway to improvement between student and teacher. When grading, this allows teachers to make authentic, fair and reliable judgements about the abilities of students from a wide range of evidence (Frey, 2014).

Student engagement has been positive, with some reflections from current students included below:

‘Pathways and Perspectives are less stressful because they aren’t assessed by exams but they are thought-provoking. They’re new and challenging but enjoyable.’

‘I think working hard on a regular basis is better than sitting a nerve-wracking exam that you either pass or fail once.’

‘In the Ancient World course we had a debate connecting ancient heroes to superheroes in modern culture, which was really fascinating.’

‘I love philosophy, so in the Big Ideas course I always enjoy critical and analytical activities such as speeches, essays and presentations that allow us to share our ideas about profound philosophical subjects.’

‘We are very much encouraged to follow our own independent path. My Pathways and Perspectives courses are both favourite subjects.’

Exam success is not the end goal of education. We need different scales and types of assessment to accurately record the progression and achievement of students (Christodoulou, 2016). There is still room for traditional tests within this framework, but the overall aim is to limit the significance placed on pressurised terminal exams. The intention is to redirect the emphasis towards rewarding the development of a variety of capabilities. The assessment framework is unified across all courses, such that it can lead to interdisciplinary mastery learning (Lucas and Spencer, 2018). It also allows for the learning environment, pedagogy and training to be embedded across the school, crucially allowing for moderation and collaboration between academic departments.

By building a model centred around progression, teachers now have a greater chance to use assessment to continually amend their teaching to suit the needs of their pupils. Having the freedom and time to place the necessary emphasis on individual improvement, without the need to rush through schemes of work to cover examinable content, offers students a more iterative and immersive educational experience.

The time has come to evaluate the domination of GCSEs over secondary education. Following the cancellation of public exams, a national discussion surrounding the influence and purpose of GCSE exams has been gaining intensity. Our contribution to this discourse has been to acknowledge that terminal GCSE exams can offer some benefits to students, particularly with regard to knowledge retention. However, they are unsatisfactory as the sole method of attempting to fairly determine the capabilities and outcomes of our students. There is an opportunity to change the thinking regarding assessment to harness the enhanced neuroplasticity of the teenage brain, dedicating greater focus to the process of education and making more equitable and comprehensive judgements regarding the abilities of our children.


Astle J (2018) Schools unleashed. RSA Journal 164(3): 38–41.

Bolton P (2012) Education: Historial Statistics. London: House of Commons Library.

Christodoulou D (2016) Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Key Stage 4 destination measures. Available at: (accessed 16 January 2021).

Frey B (2014) Authentic assessment. In: Modern Classroom Assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 199–234.

Lennon B (2020) The changing secondary curriculum in England. Buckingham Journal of Education 1: 5–20.

Lucas B and Spencer E (2018) Developing Tenacity: Teaching Learners How to Persevere in the Face of Difficulty. Bancyfelin: Crown House Publishing.

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