Do GCSEs still matter with a school leaving age of 17?

The BBC has asked a number of education experts whether, with the school leaving age in England now 17, GCSEs still matter as much…

…Prof Alison Wolf, a specialist in the relationship between education and the labour market at King’s College London, argues that GCSEs remain an important benchmark as the results determine students’ progress into their next stage of education, training or employment.

“Yes they do matter as not everyone does A-levels”, said Prof Wolf, who authored the English government’s 2011 review of vocational education.

“Employers, universities and further education colleges care about students’ performance in the core maths, English and science GCSEs.

“GCSEs do not need to be replaced, though I think there is a case to be made between core GCSEs, where we need to work really hard to ensure we have a single clear national standard at all times, and others where we can afford to be more easy going – but that’s a slightly different matter…

However Prof Alan Smithers, director of Buckingham University’s Centre for Education and Employment Research, would prefer to see GCSEs replaced with exams at 14 or 15.

This would mean a fundamental restructuring of secondary education.

“If we are to make full use of the raising of the participation age to 18 it would make more sense for the exams to be moved to age 14.

“If the exam structure was changed to exams at 14, young people would have four years to specialise on academic courses or more direct routes to employment.”

Such a move would bring England more into line with European education systems where assessments at 14 determine their future educational paths, says Prof Smithers.

Under the current system however he says that GCSEs still matter “very much to schools” because the main performance measure is focused on GCSEs.

He adds that plans to decouple AS-levels from A-levels will mean universities are more likely to base their offers on GCSE results.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says now is not the time for the upheaval that such a change in exam timing would require.

“We’ve seen almost continuous structural change in recent decades. What we need to do now is to focus on outcomes and the quality of teaching to ensure all students achieve the best outcomes in whatever course they are following.

“At present it’s important to have a measure of how students have achieved at the end of their time in a particular institution.

“Because we have a large number of 11 to 16 schools and pupils pursue a wide range of different routes after 16, it would be detrimental to abolish GCSEs.”…

More at: Do GCSEs still matter with a school leaving age of 17?


Your thoughts on the issues raised here and the comments made? Do you think GCSEs will need to be reassessed in light of the rising school leaving age? Would a different model – perhaps as suggested by Prof Smithers – make more sense for the future? Let us know!


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin every morning (around 7 am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link!

Exam candidates forget basic grammar
How teachers could be pressuring teens into having sex
Categories: Secondary.


  1. Ingotian

    SchoolsImprove Only as a recognition of learning (motivator) and to inform progression routes and then not specifically GCSE.

  2. Ingotian

    SchoolsImprove ..but of course that could be any time between say 11 and 17 if the focus is on recognition, motivation and progression.

  3. Ingotian

    SchoolsImprove This is the flaw in the reforms. The purpose is based on an out of date need rather than what will really raise standards.

  4. Ingotian

    SchoolsImprove Parents and voters know what they had when they were at school so it is inevitable that political drivers are out of date.

  5. lennyvalentino

    SchoolsImprove Employers (and FE/HE providers) rely on GCSE’s for entry requirements. May need a good alternative or an end of Y11 level.

  6. Not everyone does A level, but come on those that don’t, normally do vocational qualifications, apprenticeships or go straight into work. It seems unbelievable that the focus is not on what motivates children to learn because that is the only thing that has really much chance of raising standards. If we accept that would we design an assessment system like the one in place? Well, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t which is why we have the TLM assessment methods that start with Level 1 qualifications targeted on KS3 as a progression route to Level 2 and 3 and with Level 3 Awards that can fit into KS4 so that high flyers that get A*s early have a progression route and are not simply marking time for a year or two.

  7. Ingotian

    lennyvalentino SchoolsImprove Employes perhaps rely on Ma and En but few people get jobs just on their GCSE grades.

  8. lennyvalentino

    Ingotian SchoolsImprove If it is a min requirement when applying for a job (5GCSE E+M is common) you are excluded from applying w/out

  9. Ingotian

    lennyvalentino SchoolsImprove In most cases they will have other Level 2s at that point. Its ony a requirement through tradition, not need

  10. lennyvalentino

    Ingotian SchoolsImprove If you want to earn more than min wage, pretty much all of them! Common across public sector/NHS/universities etc

  11. lennyvalentino

    Ingotian SchoolsImprove Yes, agreed – equivalents normally accepted and hopefully higher or other levels achieved by age 17

  12. Janet2

    In most developed countries, lower secondary education ends at 15 to 16 with progression to upper secondary decided on a few tests (internal and/or external) in core subjects (not a large number of high-stakes exams as in England) and/or  teacher assessment/coursework.  Full matriculation is at 18 often by multiple routes (ie mixture of academic/vocational exams depending on the student).  Even Hong Kong has dumped its equivalent to O and A levels in favour of one exam at 17.

    No employer should be allowed to take on a 16 year-old without ensuring they receive continuing education and proper, accredited training.  

    The sole purpose of exams at 15/16+ is to decide upper secondary routes.  They should not be used for judging schools.

Let us know what you think...