Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Is there a future for GCSEs?
As more and more teenagers stay on in education after sitting their GSCEs, some say the qualification is becoming less important.

With the steady growth in staying-on rates in education, the exam is now effectively a stepping stone to higher qualifications.

Head teachers' union leader, John Dunford, believes GCSEs could become "progress checks" rather than fully-fledged exams, with A-levels remaining the "gold standard" of secondary education.

But the government's consultation paper on the future of secondary education says GCSEs will continue as a key qualification.

Is there a future for GCSEs? Or is their significance becoming eroded?

This Talking Poing is now closed, but here are a selection of your comments:

Why does it matter? If you have the best grades out of all the people applying for a job, then who cares how hard the exam was? Even if the exam is easier, it does not mean the people sitting it are less intelligent.
Fay, UK

Those in charge should start asking the younger generation what they think of the exams

Hannah, England
I'm one of the guinea pig students, who had been the first to try every test going. I love listening to all the "speculators" moaning about the standards dropping. Yes, they are speculators, because they don't sit the exams. Maybe those in charge should start asking the younger generation what they think of the exams?

I've just sat another new set of exams - AS, in which every college seems just as confused about it as the next. The exam system is a shambles, qualifications are more and more variable in the "standard". All U can say is, good luck to future students, because they'll need it!
Hannah, England

I took my IGCSEs 2 years ago, after which I then moved on to the IB course. I am now currently in university. I must admit no consideration or attention has been given to my IGCSE passes but I still do not view them as worthless, easy or not. They were my first real exams and they allowed me to discover my studying habits, how to manage stress and time, which came in very handy and was further developed when I took my IB exams. I am sure these skills will be of use again in university and further on in life.
Ann Abrams, Thailand

Perhaps some of the vehement critics of the current GCSE and A-level exams would care to retake the subjects they studied for O-/A-level 15+ years ago. Until they do so and achieve vastly better grades in today's exams, they have no right to condemn the exam system for being too easy. Admittedly, the format and content of today's exams may vary slightly from those taken 15+ years ago, but this is not always an indicator of falling standards.
Ian, England

I am 17 years old and about to embark on the A2 course of my A-levels under curriculum 2000. I sat my GCSE's last year and did extremely well but they were by no means handed to me on a plate and were rather the result of two years of hard work involving often having to stay up until 3.00 in the morning in order to produce coursework of a high enough standard to achieve A* grades and I by no means struggle at academic work. As a result of this hard work I feel I justifiably have the right to feel I have something to be proud of as a product of my own hard work backed by a supportive comprehensive school.
Lisa, UK

I can only assume the educators are very flexible with the pass criteria

Steve, England
Having compared one of my GCSE papers in Physics taken in 1989 to my nephew's mock Science paper I am left in no doubt that today's standards have not only dropped but plummeted. With league tables so important I can only assume the educators are very flexible with the pass criteria.
Steve, England

I worked for an exam board for the past two years, and had the opportunity to read an enormous number of exam papers and answers. If it is the case that standards are improving I can only say that the O-level children must have been very stupid indeed. I was astonished to see a question for foundation GCSE maths in which the candidates were asked to colour in 2/3 of a shape, and even more astonished at the number who got it wrong. I would have expected a primary school child to be familiar with such simple fractions. It is sad, because a lot of children do work incredibly hard and produce excellent results, but their efforts are devalued by those who manipulate grade boundaries so that the overall pass rate can continue to rise.

I don't really see how they can be getting easier year on year, I took mine 8 years ago and they were a joke then. You could have given me a copy of the science syllabus to read and I would have passed the exams no problem. The only real way of making things easier than that would be to print the answers on the paper.
Paul Johnson, UK

Maybe some of these older people who are claiming that the GCSE's are harder should go on and sit them and prove their point.
David Somuah, USA

I've yet to meet an employer who cares what GCSE's I got. Saying that most do not care what A-Levels I have or what my degree is in. Many employers nowadays set tests for jobs, if you pass their tests you can do their job. Education results count for little, what people are interested in is experience. This may sound like I think there is no point working for GCSEs, which would be incorrect. Though I have worked for one firm who disliked people who were intelligent, even they valued people who worked hard and take in what they have been taught. Hard work and study help to equip you for interviews, work based tests and the world of work. However what employers are equally looking for is people who are well socialised and can get on well with others in the office.

If you have done well in GCSEs do not rest on your laurels, and if you have done badly, cheer up - it is not that important, if you can demonstrate to employers that you will be good at the job then you will still get good jobs. Part of me thinks that the fact that the rest of your life does not all depend on how well you do over a few weeks when you are fifteen or sixteen is actually not a bad thing.
Ed Manning, UK

My son came home with 9 GCSE passes and it was one of the proudest moments we have shared together

Maggie, UK
My son came home with 9 GCSE passes and it was one of the proudest moments we have shared together. When I think about his past five years - coping with the divorce of his parents, going through teenage troubles etc. There is no way I could down the students of today by saying the exams are easier. Congratulations to all of you, and the best of luck in the future.
Maggie, UK

We live in an information age, where young people are ever more aware of what is expected, and how to achieve it. Why the surprise that results improve year on year? I celebrate this, along with my 16-year-old gaining 10 good passes, and Everton sitting top of the Premier League. God is in his heaven.
Craig Harry, England

I recently received my GCSE results, like all the other nervous 16-year-olds across the country. I find it extremely annoying when the examiners claim the GCSEs are becoming easier and that's why more pupils pass! Well, they are incorrect. The GCSEs were the most difficult exams I had done so far and the reason why many passed is because of the hard work they put in.
KATIE, england

What makes me laugh is the old duffers that sat the harder exams, would've been the architects of GCSE - damn good your harder qualifications did you! It's going to be left up to my generation, with our sub-standard qualifications, to pull the education system out of the doldrums!
scott, uk

Having just sat my AS levels this year and GCSEs last year I can safely say that GCSEs are of no use whatsoever as a progression onto further learning. Often teaching is directed on how to pass exams rather than learn the subject itself. I don't believe exams are easier, just changing. An increase in pass rates may have something to do with the fact that students have far more resources available to them now to aid learning, such as the internet.
Rajit, England

It's time the older generations shut up and stopped finding fault in the young and their successes

Paul Homent, England
Change the record - for as long as I can remember the 'experts' have been claiming that GCSEs are getting easier. What a confidence booster that is to all of those people who have proudly passed their exams. For some reason we are happier with failure rather than success in this country - it's time the older generations shut up and stopped finding fault in the young and their successes.
Paul Homent, England

The introduction of the A* a few years ago sounded the death knell of GCSEs. The concept of introducing a new grade above 'A' because so many were getting the top grade is like something straight out of The Simpsons. I assume, as more people get 'A*' we'll see a new 'A**' grade. Eventually, everyone will get As, and students will be judged on the number of stars they get.
James P, UK

Typical comments made by the ill-informed, as regards the making of GCSE pass rates easier to attain, make me so angry. My daughter has just passed her G.C.S.E exams, thanks to some serious hard work by her and her teachers, and her success is justly deserved. People who make ill judged comments should think what effect it has on people and the teaching staff. Exams are never easy, they consist of two years of study, modular tests, and finally, after much revision, the exam itself. I and many parents today, are proud of our children and their achievements.
Geoffrey Wilkes, Wales

Why do the young people on here take it so personally?

Seamus, England
Why do the young people on here take it so personally? Nobody is demeaning their efforts, many of them will be every bit as intelligent and have worked every bit as hard as those who came before. The difference is that if one expended that energy years ago, one might have ended up with a couple of As and a B. Nowadays one ends up with 6 As. All that has changed is that the exams have been made far simpler to mask the inadequacies of current teaching standards. The only ones "failing" round here are those who bury their heads in the sand and ignore that indisputable fact.
Seamus, England

Every year we hear the same thing, over and over again. When I passed my GCSEs six years ago, the 'fact' that they were supposedly 'easier' made me question my own ability and took something away from my celebrations. People say today's younger generation have it easy - but judging from some of the comments here from their elders, it has confirmed what I already believed: they don't.

As if it's not bad enough that they're called stupid because GCSEs are easier today than 12 years ago, when they do go on to higher education they're faced with mounting student debts, and, for many, depression. Wake up, people - even if GCSEs are easier now, give these youngsters some encouragement instead of forcing them to fight a losing battle against people who really should know better.
Anna, UK

Standards have dropped in A Levels and GCSEs. Engineering institutions, whose interest is in maintaining standards, now demand a four year university course. Why? The first year now covers what used to be in the 'old' Maths, Physics and Technology A-Levels (circa 1990)
Daniel, UK

I have found in my working life that very few of the exams I have taken have any real benefit to me

Ivan Parish, England
I feel that when I did my GCSE's in 1993, the jump between these and the A levels I took was massive. It made it almost impossible to complete, let alone pass, the A level courses due to the jump in difficulty. I have found now in my working life that very few of the exams I have taken over the years have any real benefit to me (as an I.T. consultant) and I sometimes feel that maybe that time was wasted.
Ivan Parish, England

School examinations should represent what a child can do, not what they cannot. There are a huge number of children who will have been glad to get any grades at all. By criticising the worth of A-C grades we are ignoring these children's real achievements.
Howard, UK

Children now are working harder than ever

Richard, UK
It really annoys me when people who really have no contact with the education system complain about GCSEs getting easier. I did GCSEs back in 1993, and the amount of pressure that I was put under is nothing compared to what my sixteen-year-old brother has just been through. The fact is that students and teachers have been pushed so hard over the last ten years to achieve, with constant assessment and scrutiny, that the importance of academic success is drummed into them.

Children now are working harder than ever. Six and seven year olds should not be suffering from stress related illnesses because of pressure from school. For these ignorant, opinionated snobs to belittle these poor kids is deeply wrong.
Richard, UK

It's the older generation that made the exams for us easy. Thanks a lot, all that time I spent doing Highers etc has been WASTED. I feel let down and used, I might as well have left school at 16 and got a job, at least then I would have work experience. But now I've got practically no experience, good pass grades that apparently mean nothing to anybody, and all you lot can do is argue. Let's get something done about it, you have already destroyed our hard work.
Richard S, Scotland

There is no doubt that exams today are much easier than they were in the past

Paul Thomas, UK
We live in a crazy society where we all fall over ourselves to be politically correct. GCSEs are just another example of this. The philosophy being that everyone must succeed even if they fail. There is no doubt that exams today are much easier than they were in the past and unfortunately that opinion is also held by the country's major industries. What this actually means is that in the eyes of the people that count, the employers.. everyone has actually failed. This is of course terrible for the young people taking the exams but something that will continue whilst we all keep our heads in the sand and keep saying how wonderful the king's new clothes are.
Paul Thomas, UK

As an employer, we have been forced by the high pass rates to totally ignore GCSE results when we recruit staff - they are now totally devoid of any meaning or indication of future potential
Hugh McKinney, London

I did O and A-levels. We all knew where we were with them and passing meant something. In those days A-levels were your ticket to studying for a degree that was worth having. These days you can get a BA in Spice Studies from DumbDown University (formerly BarbieDoll College of FE) and it means very little. It would be nice if we could go back to a regime that differentiates properly between high and low standards.

They are not that easy to get high grades in

Tom O'D, UK
GCSEs may be easy to PASS but they are not that easy to get high grades in. I did mine last year, I got A's but I did have to work hard, though I did not work any less hard than someone who got an A a few years ago. There's no need to scrap them, change them maybe so that they offer more vocational qualifications as well.
Tom O'D, UK

Well even if exams are getting easier, we can always rely on the bitterness of the older generation to devalue the qualification.
Steven, UK

Surely it's not the GCSEs that are worthless, but the ludicrous amount of SAT testing, which is manipulated by schools for league table purposes and has no tangible benefit for students whatsoever.
Graeme Stretton, Singapore

Exams 10 years ago were harder than those of today

Jayesh Modhwadia, England
I teach both GCSE and A-Level Mathematics. I have studied many of the past examination papers carefully. One thing is obvious: exams 10 years ago were harder than those of today. The subject has become less abstract and more geared towards 'everyday applications' at the cost of mathematical rigour. This means that A-levels, too, must get easier (and have done) to cope with the lower standard that students come with. For example, Calculus used to be apart of the O-level syllabus 15 years ago but is now seen by most A-level students as the hardest part of the course!
Jayesh Modhwadia, Loughborough, England

I wonder why, if experts say that GCSEs are not of a lower standard than, say, twenty years ago, students are unable to spell, unable to use correct English grammar and unable to even add up and subtract in their heads? I rest my case.
Mrs V Amond, England

Everyone other then the government (with an eye on their majority) and the exam boards (with an eye on their revenues) admits that standards required to pass exams have fallen. It is evident from the results and the comparatively low levels of knowledge of recent students with passes. Even examiners are admitting it once their jobs can no longer be jeopardised by speaking out. Isn't it time to move the argument to "What can be done to raise standards again?"

In this media-aware, 'it's bad to fail' environment that we have created, we are pandering to the lowest common denominator. Every year a certain percentage have to fail - the majority getting Cs and Bs and then a thin slice getting As. Today's education system is breeding dullards who don't know what 'failure' is. I took my English O'level 8 times, failed seven times (got Ds) and finally passed it and am now a magazine editor! What doesn't destroy me, makes me stronger.
Martyn, London, UK

GCSEs were the hardest exams I ever sat

Paul Marshall, England
As a 27-year-old now working in the city as a hotshot broker, I can safely say that GCSEs were the hardest exams I ever sat. Good luck to today's students. Exam passes are not relevant to being as successful as I now am, as common sense is more relevant. However exams are a measure of intelligence so good luck to today's kids getting 6 As, hopefully in sensible every day subjects like home economics and art. My maths, chemistry, physics and biology GCSE has never been any good to me
Paul Marshall, England

What is the point of having exams if 90% of the people pass? It makes the whole system of exams nothing but a laugh. If it continues with the current trend, the exam will mean nothing
Paul Lush, England

Thanks! After being reminded constantly whilst I was young that the only way I could have a chance of a decent job in the future was to get an education, I'm now told that the only reason I only passed my exams (which I worked hard for) was because they were easy. No wonder young people no longer have respect.
Paul Wilson, England

There is no equivalent of GCSEs in either France or Germany

Toby Kubitz, Germany
There is no equivalent of GCSEs in either France or Germany. What there is, for those who are not aiming for university, is a meaningful vocational alternative. In the UK, if you don't have GCSEs and A-levels you are labelled as thick and generally can look forward to a series of repetitive, depressing, low paid jobs. This prejudice has robbed UK industry and the public sector of skilled, motivated workers. At the same time it has produced many substandard graduates.
Toby Kubitz, Germany

How important GCSEs are depends on how long ago you took them. My 25-year-old O-levels are now of no relevance whatsoever, but they were highly important to me and my career prospects at the time, just as GCSEs are highly important to those taking them now and will not be when those people are 40.
Nicola, UK

Girls may well be doing better than boys but I'll bet they will still end up paying twice as much as boys for their car repairs. In the wheeler-dealing, competitive bargaining negotiations of life they'll always lose out.
Anthony, England

Having studied in an English school before moving to university in Spain, I can safely say that the whole English education system is flawed. The English place too much emphasis on having a GCSE pass or a university degree but it is actually worthless if the pass came from a second class institution.
Alex Mira, Spain

GCSEs should be phased out and replaced with something more relevant

Tom Archer, UK
GCSEs are becoming pointless as they are now effectively unfailable. Pass rates of 96.3% and A grades so common A* grades have had to be introduced. It is no wonder that many employers now insist on A-levels or a degree where they would have previously taken O-levels. GCSEs should be phased out and replaced with something more relevant.
Tom Archer, UK

Moving house a couple of years ago, I discovered some old O-level papers from the 1960's in German. No university graduate I have come across in recent years would stand even the remotest chance of passing them. And now we read that the pass rates for GCSE stand at something like 99% and for the 'Gold Standard' A-levels at around 90%. Who are we kidding? These results are a sick joke, designed to make us believe that educational standards are rising. In reality, the powers that be are simply papering over the cracks.
Tom Beck, England

Of course it is imperative that we continue to gauge the progress of our children's' education by using GCSEs. A standard benchmark has to exist by which children's abilities can be assessed in relation to their peers, and not all children wish to stay on after GCSEs. What we must avoid at all costs is the continual dilution of the exams in order that we don't "disappoint" those who have underachieved. If everybody leaves with straight 'A's as some seem to advocate, how on earth will employers and universities choose between them?
Shaun Prior, Scotland

When I taught maths at a crammer 20 years ago, it was obvious to us even then that the different exam boards had very different standards, and that we could improve our results statistics (and hence attract more pupils) by choosing appropriately. With the publication of league tables, the same incentive now applies to every school in the land. At the same time, the different exam boards have an equally obvious incentive to attract more schools to take their version of the exams, which clearly puts a pressure on them to lower standards in response to the schools' wishes. The national curriculum has done away with the argument in favour of a variety of syllabuses, at least for the core subjects. So it is surely right now to move to a single national exam board also, and do away with this competition to reduce standards.
Peter Millican, England

I do feel that GCSEs are important

Paul, Isle of Man
Again, there's the age-old argument that the exams are getting easier. And I am inclined to agree. Five years ago, all that was needed to pass the Southern Examination Group German GCSE was a measly 4 marks out of a total of 144. I do feel that GCSEs are important because if anything, it shows you've been to school for at least one day in your life!!
Paul, Isle of Man

The use of one-off memory tests to rate students is archaic and cruel. Scrap them tomorrow and the world would be a better place.
Guy Chapman, UK

Just because it has been years and years since the older people sat their equivalent of GCSEs does not mean that they are not important. GCSEs are the first main exams of the next generation. And from these exam results they choose their path of life. Do not scrap them, it would be an insult to the education system if they were.
Khuram, England, UK

See also:

22 Aug 01 | Education
GCSEs fading in importance?
05 Jun 01 | Education
Goodbye GCSEs?
26 Aug 98 | Correspondents
Ten years of the GCSE
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Talking Point stories