Abolishing GCSEs would set the education system back decades and “fail” the most disadvantaged children, the schools minister has said.
Nick Gibb said it would be a “huge mistake” to scrap the formal assessments at the age of 16, despite growing calls to overhaul the exams system.
In a virtual speech to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank, the schools minister criticised the “reheated so-called progressive” movement to abolish GCSEs that had emerged amid the pandemic.
The cancellation of the summer exams for a second year in a row has prompted some education leaders and politicians to call on ministers to consider reforming GCSEs in the post-Covid years.
Last week, The Times reported that former prime minister Sir John Major had called for reform of the exam system as he disliked GCSEs due to the “stress and strain they impose on students”.
When asked for his response to Conservatives calling for reform, Mr Gibb said: “Well I respectfully disagree. Every curriculum, every exam, of course can always be improved, but the concept of having an exam across a range of subjects at the age of 16 I think is an important part of our school system.”
He added that many students moved to a different institution at 16, and for a “large minority” of young people their GCSE exams were the last academic qualifications they took.
Mr Gibb said: “They may go on to a very high quality vocational qualification. But in five to 10 years time, they may decide to change that vocation to something else and then they will need to be able to demonstrate to a future employer or future college that they have academic achievements when they were at school.”
He added: “I think it would be a huge mistake to abolish the tried and tested GCSEs.”
In the speech on Wednesday, Mr Gibb said: “Some have been using the pandemic to argue for a different approach, for a reheated so-called progressive agenda to abolish GCSEs for example, which will take our education system back decades and once again fail the most disadvantaged children.”
During the webinar with the think tank, Mr Gibb also addressed renewed calls to “decolonise” the curriculum in schools.
He told the event: “We will not create a more harmonious, tolerant and equal society through promoting a curriculum based on relevance to, or representativeness of, any one group.
“Nor will we do so by being ashamed of who we are and where we came from.”
Mr Gibb said: “I believe the job of the teacher – and our best teachers indeed do this – is to teach a curriculum which opens up a world of wonder and beauty from people of all creeds and colours far beyond the narrow experience of an individual child.
“A curriculum based on relevance to pupils is to deny them an introduction to the best that has been taught and said, and of course there is no reason why the work of a dead white man is not appropriate for children from ethnic minorities to learn about it.”
But he added: “Of course, children need to know how Britain became Britain as it is today. And there are important events – Windrush just to pick one event – that children do need to be taught about.
“But they also need to be taught about all the other events that led to Britain as it is today.”
Mr Gibb said he was worried by video clips on Twitter, as well as reports from schools, of “violent and angry protests sparked by the recent unrest in Gaza”.
Following reports of pro-Palestine protests outside schools, the minister called for young people to be given the facts about the Arab-Israeli conflict so that they can “form their own views”.
He said: “We must be on our guard to ensure that schools don’t become centres of one-sided propaganda, or a hostile environment for young people of any faith or religion.
“That we’ve seen over the last few years, anti-Israeli sentiment can too easily, and too quickly, turn into anti-Semitic prejudice.”