Is the UK Exam System Outdated for Students Today?


  1. Do UK exams respond to societal change?
  2. Is the modern education system outdated?
  3. Is the UK exam system outdated?
  4. Why are exams not effective?
  5. Is an exam really necessary in the UK education system?

With each subsequent results day since the dawn of GCSEs, the same question rolls around year after year: “Is the UK exam system outdated?”  Whether the national average of GCSE and A-Level grades has increased or decreased, the effectiveness of modern exams is scrutinised. ✏️

Examined students are both accused of “having it easier” while simultaneously we know that UK students are under unprecedented amounts of academic stress

So which one is it? 

child taking exam in exam hall


Do UK exams respond to societal change?


The pandemic has hurled some elements of the UK education system into a modernised, more socially distanced reality, whether the Education Secretary was ready for it or not. 💻

In August 2020, the education secretary honoured grades submitted by teachers over traditional exam results, due to the disruption to the learning experience by everyone that year. This led to increases in top grades for students, more students eligible for Sixth-form and many more eligible for university.

However, in August 2021, GCSE results “revealed a widening attainment gap between pupils from selective schools and those from other state schools.” The disparity was found in both Primary and Secondary schools. This was the second consecutive year in which students were awarded grades by their teacher’s assessment rather than formal exams. 👩‍🏫


Is the modern education system outdated?


State school students have suffered from long-term distance learning, due to a slower pace of study. This is usually due to a lack of access to resources such as a laptop, printer and high-speed internet for students whilst home-schooling. These issues do not affect Private school students at the same rates due to their greater economic privilege. 

The Department of Education’s catch-up plan using the newly launched National Tutoring Programme is largely regarded by schools as a blanket solution “untested at a national scale”. Instead, generally “schools would prefer to be allowed to employ their own expertise to determine what pupils need and be given funding directly from the government to achieve this.” 💷


Is the UK exam system outdated?


The unfairness of exams is rarely as obvious as when grade barriers are adjusted to ensure that not “too many” of the top grades are handed out to hardworking students. Top grades are rationed every year.

To control grade inflation, exam regulator Ofqual now ensures that around 8 per cent of students get the top grades for A-levels and GCSEs, no more, no less. 

Meaning an identical exam paper worthy of a top grade last year would be awarded a lower grade this year if more students submitted exam papers of a higher calibre. ✍️  

This was a response to universities being unable to differentiate between candidates and pressure on the government that exams were becoming easier.


Why are exams not effective?


Exams in the UK have been called everything from outdated to unfair. The cancelling of UK school exams in 2020 and 2021 has added fuel to this fire. 

Although, closed-book assessments are still defended as an objective way to measure students’ abilities. Mr Lebus, chief of Ofqual, has defined exams as a snapshot, whereas teacher assessment allows observation over a much longer period.” 

Sam Freedman, who was an adviser to the education secretary has stated that “Exams are by far the most reliable way of comparing people”, crediting the high stakes for motivating revision and improving key information recall. 📝


Is an exam really necessary in the UK education system?


Nick Gibb, former Minister of State for School Standards, has made his stance clear on the necessity of formal exams like GCSEs to ensure the following:

  • The standard of education received is on par with qualifications in the highest performing education systems in the world
  • To hold weaker schools accountable to a demanding curriculum
  • To enforce the importance of committing knowledge to memory

However, Lord Baker who first introduced GCSEs now wishes to see the qualifications replaced. He proposes instead that there should be:

  • A good alternative to GCSEs
  • The possibility for some tests in school, plus coursework and teacher assessment
  • Tests that don’t always include a deep written examination

As the situation stands today, exams in 2022 are scheduled to go ahead for GCSE, A and AS levels. The Department for Education and Ofqual has published a press release to outline the adaptations that “recognise the disruption to education.” They also justify the return to exams as “the fairest possible form of assessment.” ⚖️

Some of the temporary adaptations include there being a choice of topics in some GCSE exams, and support materials in other exam papers such as a formulae sheet in Maths.

However, even with adaptations, this is understandably a turbulent time for those of you anticipating sitting your exams under new conditions.  Whether you believe that exams in the UK are outdated or not, as they are scheduled to be held as planned, we’d encourage you to reach out to your teachers and parents for maximum support and guidance at this time.