What is a GCSE, and where do GCSEs come from
June 13, 2017
What is a GCSE Exam?
In 1870, The Education Act required the establishment of non-denominational elementary schools for children aged 5-13, nationwide. Schools could charge parents no more than nine pence a week to educate a child. Then, ten years later, attendance was made compulsory until the age of 10.
In 1891, elementary education effectively became free, thus three significant developmental changes in education had taken place across each of the previous threedecades; but it was 1918 before the national school-leaving age was raised to 14.
In the midst of WWII, 1944, Butler’s Education Act sought to encourage the “spiritual, mental and physical” well-being of the community. It created a “tripartite”, hierarchical system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Selection was decided by an exam taken at the age of 11, and the school-leaving age was raised to 15.
In 1951, the first source of inspiration for what became GCSEs, the General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-levels and A-levels were introduced, replacing the School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate. These were primarily grammar school exams. In addition, some education authorities established their own leaving examinations for youngsters not taking GCEs.
In 1964, Harold Wilson’s newly-elected Labour government promised to set up comprehensive schools, combining pupils of all ability levels in one school that served a specific catchment area. In 1965, meanwhile, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced for secondary modern pupils to cater for those not sitting O-levels.
Following this, in 1973, the school-leaving age was once again raised, this time to 16, and in 1976, another Wilson administration compelled all local authorities to introduce comprehensives; but this legislation was repealed by the Tories in 1979.
In 1988, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) replaced O-levels and CSEs. The National Curriculum, stipulating subjects to be studied until the age of 16, was also introduced.
GCSEs were developed further in 1994, when an A* grade was introduced to differentiate between top and lower A grades. In 1995, meanwhile, the government introduced National Curriculum Tests, often called SATs, for all children aged 7, 11 and 14 (tests for seven year olds were first tried in 1991), leading to target grade-setting for children once they reached GCSE age.
GCSEs as introduced in 1988 continued with little change until 2004, when Mike Tomlinson, the former inspector of schools in England, proposed replacing them, A-levels and the “soup” of vocational qualifications with a four-part diploma for 14 to 19 year olds.
Ultimately, this didn’t come to pass, but as you are likely aware, the GCSE grading system was further altered in 2015 with the decision to replace the traditional grading system with grades 1-9.