GCSEs, introduced in 1988, started out with between 20-40% coursework depending on the subject. Throughout the years however, there has been a shift closer to a purely exam-based system. Could it be time to rethink the idea altogether? 


It’s been more than 2 months since the Government’s U-turn on A level and GCSE results.  Following the protests led by students worried for their futures, it was finally decided that they would use the Centre Assessed Grades by teachers as opposed to the algorithm devised by Ofqual, which was criticised for negatively affecting the results of disadvantaged students. But while teenagers marched Britain’s streets, armed with signs that called the Government to “Trust our teachers”, students in Norway were facing a very different situation. 


Despite the fact that they too had had their written exams cancelled due to Covid-19 regulations, the Education Minister Guri Melby stated that “the consequences for those whose exams must be cancelled aren’t very large.”


Why weren’t they facing the same panic as us? 


Because, in Norway, classwork participation marked by teachers throughout the year accounts for 80% of a student’s report, while final exams are only 20%. 


This contrast sheds light on a major fault in such a heavily exam-focused system as GCSEs: if they are unable to take place, the system falls apart and it seems as though the past two years of learning and progress in the students’ lives don’t count for much. Furthermore, the fear of teachers being biased towards their students meant the Government initially put more faith in a flawed algorithm than the hard-working professionals educating our future generations.


Even putting this revealing moment of chaos aside, the huge emphasis on final exams above all else can have negative impacts on students. As a Year 12 that’s part of the year group who had their GCSEs cancelled, I’ve seen it first-hand.


Teachers, even those who want to push their students to go further, often don’t have the time or resources, in state schools, to use lesson time for anything other than teaching the exam specification. Students therefore aren’t often encouraged to research their subjects beyond the bounds of what will be in their exams. Common revision techniques are robotically memorising facts with flash cards, doing exam question after exam question, and analysing mark schemes to learn what the exam board wants to see.


Learning how to get good marks on the exam appears to take priority over learning the actual subject, decreasing any enthusiasm you might have for it.


It’s not surprising that students can feel their work isn’t meaningful or is just a necessary chore that must be completed to get to the next step in life, especially in schools without many super-curricular clubs or educational trips, which allow students to be inquisitive and enjoy learning without the boxed-in exam requirements looming over them.


Education should bring freedom, it should be empowering, it should inspire young people to unlock their potential and unleash creativity. It should not encourage them to prepare solely within the confines of an exam specification, as though training for a 100 meters race in which all that matters is the final sprint. 


Given that Norway has a high standard of education, ranking 4th in the Education Index in 2015 while the UK ranked 10th, the idea of using grades partly based on how a teacher has evaluated the students’ overall learning isn’t so far-fetched. 


It could encourage students to put more effort into classwork, homework assignments, and tests throughout the year as they know it will have a significant impact on their final grade. It could also give teachers more freedom to explore topics that go beyond the content of the final exams, encouraging students to pursue their academic interests further through independent learning. 


As a student, it is disheartening to have your questions in class met with “you won’t need to know that for the exam”, less through the fault of the teacher than through the fault of the system. It is also disheartening, and even insulting, to teachers, to see their credibility doubted to such an extent that one of the key arguments against teacher-assessed grades is that that they will cheat in favour of their students.


Yes, exams are important. A good way of measuring the progress of students nationwide in the same way. But if all the focus and pressure in classrooms is on exams, priorities flip for the worse. Instead of exams being a tool to measure our knowledge of a subject, the knowledge is reduced to being simply a tool to pass the exams.