AQA report shows widespread support for GCSEs among young people

Monday 4 Oct 2021

Three quarters of young people are glad they took GCSEs, and more than two thirds say the qualifications helped them move on to the next stage of their lives, a report we’ve published today has found.

However, many of the young people also said they would have liked to be assessed on a wider range of skills.

The report, What Next for GCSEs?, warns against any ‘radical or disruptive change’ to the qualifications that would ‘undermine the value and benefits of GCSEs to millions of students.’

The report is the first to be published on AQi – AQA’s new online hub for insight and data on assessment and qualifications. Both the report and the new website are being launched at an event at the Conservative party conference today.

The report includes the results of a new survey of 1,001 young people in England from a range of backgrounds, who were asked about their experiences of taking GCSEs.

The survey findings show a high level of support for GCSEs among young people – which appears to contradict claims that high-stakes exams at 16 have a detrimental impact on students.

73% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘I’m glad I took my GCSEs’.

68% said taking their GCSEs helped them move forward to the next stage of their education, 66% per cent said they ‘felt pride’ in their GCSEs and 59% said their GCSEs helped prepare them for exams they took in future years.

While clearly showing support for GCSEs among the young people who have taken them, the survey also highlighted a number of perceived drawbacks to the qualifications.

More than three in five young people (61%) agreed with the statement ‘I wish my GCSEs had assessed me in skills like teamwork or communication rather than just academic subjects’.

39% of the young people surveyed also felt they had taken too many GCSEs – rising to 42% among the students who achieved the highest grades.

And among students who received the lowest grades – the D–G or 3-1 range – 45% felt that GCSEs did not help them move forward to the next stage of their education or career. 42% of these students said GCSEs did not help to motivate them or decide what to do next.

In addition to revealing the results of the survey, the report also evaluates a number of past proposals for the reform or abolition of GCSEs. It highlights that, while these are often presented as ‘simple fixes with no downsides’, all come with both advantages and disadvantages.

The report notes that many proposals focus on themes such as curriculum content rather than how students are assessed.

The report concludes that GCSEs fulfil their main purpose of measuring attainment and enabling progress - and there is no compelling argument for radical or disruptive change.

However, it also concludes that there is evidence that taking GCSEs does not provide the same value to all students – and it is important for policymakers to gain a greater understanding of why.

Colin Hughes, Chief Executive of AQA, said:

“The fact that such a huge majority of young people are glad they took GCSEs starkly contrasts with claims that exams at 16 are a bad thing. We need to listen to the young people who these qualifications most directly impact – their voice has been missing from too much of the debate so far.

“It’s important to remember that wanting to change the format or content of GCSEs and getting rid of them entirely are two very different things - and this is something people often confuse when discussing assessment reform.

“However, while there’s no compelling case for the abolition of GCSEs, they’re clearly not perfect. As a universal qualification at 16 in England, they need to work for as many of our young people as possible, but the evidence suggests that’s not yet the case.”