Young people want more say when it comes to GCSEs

A new study by researchers from the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) and Queen’s University Belfast has found that students in Wales and Northern Ireland want more choice and fairness when it comes to their GCSE experience, including the subject selection process and the pressure to take on particular academic subjects.

The study draws on data from 38 schools, 18 in Wales and 20 in Northern Ireland, in which 1,600 students took part by completing a questionnaire and taking part in focus group sessions. The findings have been published as one of several working papers on the theme of inequalities and the curriculum by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.

GCSEs are the main school-leaving examinations taken by 16-year-olds in Wales, England and Northern Ireland. For many students in these jurisdictions, the curriculum they experience between 14-16 years is effectively made up of GCSE syllabuses across a number of subjects that they have chosen to study.

The study found that while GCSEs are labelled as the same examination and students are obtaining the same qualification in the UK, they actually reflect very different curriculum and assessment systems across Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

Dr Rhian Barrance, from the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods and co-author of the paper, said: “These issues are increasingly relevant in the context of recent reforms to GCSEs that have resulted in the difference between the ways that GCSEs are assessed across the UK.

“GCSEs, while labelled as the same examination, are now very different entities across the jurisdictions of the UK; students will be obtaining the same qualification even though they reflect different curriculum and assessment systems.”

Professor Jannette Elwood, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s and co-author of the paper, added: “The data collected in the study focused on issues around choice and fairness in relation to the inequalities experienced by students through their GCSE programmes.

“Overall, we found that students felt their options at GCSE were restricted and they raised concerns that subject option choices and GCSE specifications were things that they were never consulted about. The students felt they could and should be consulted more about the higher- level policy matters such as the curriculum they follow, the subjects they are able to choose at GCSE and how they are assessed.”

Students have sophisticated perspectives on curriculum inequalities, subject choice and assessment, and have the ability to make considered judgements for their own future. The study recommends that students could be consulted when it comes to whose views are sought on any upcoming assessment reform, not only for GCSE programmes, but other significant examinations.

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