Scrap GCSEs altogether and have a graduation diploma at 18 – that’s the system in most of the world’s top-performers in international league tables.

Janet Downs's picture
Mr Gove wants the English exam system to be as good as the world’s best. He suggests that GCSE should be replaced by a two-tier system similar to the one abolished by the Conservatives twenty-five years ago. He has already said he wants to reform ‘A’ levels.

But how common is this two-tier system in the world’s top-performing countries? It isn’t - it’s actually rare. Most successful countries have one common feature: a graduation diploma at 18.

Few countries have external examinations at 16 although many assess achievement in core subjects. The results of this assessment decide upper secondary courses or whether remedial action is required. A small number, like Singapore (‘O’ levels) and France (brevet), have examinations at 16, while others, like Finland, rely on internal assessment. New Zealand allows pupils aged 15/16 to obtain credits which count towards the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). This Certificate is a record of achievement in a range of chosen studies which can be covered within the school curriculum or beyond.

Most countries have a graduation diploma for pupils reaching the required standard at the end of upper secondary school. This comprises a variety of assessment techniques including external examinations, matriculation tests, coursework, teacher assessment, extended projects and extra-curricular activities. Other countries use a tiered system at upper secondary school, such as the Netherlands, where there are differentiated terminal examinations, while others, like Hong Kong which has replaced its ‘O’ and ‘A’ level equivalent exams with one graduation diploma, examine pupils in core subjects supplemented by optional ones.

What, then, should England do to match the best? Scrap external examinations at 16 and establish a graduation diploma at age 18. Pupils’ achievement at 16 would be assessed to decide upper secondary (sixth-form or further education) pathways which should be chosen with the needs, aptitudes and attainment of the pupil in mind. The diploma could comprise a variety of methods of assessment including ‘A’ level exams, vocational exams, basic competency tests, coursework, extended projects, practical work and activities such as Young Enterprise and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Differentiation could be achieved through outcome or, as in the Netherlands, by pupils covering common components and, depending on the qualification being worked towards, studying optional components in more depth and with greater study load as required by the desired qualification.

The advantage of such a diploma is that it would be a graduation certificate attainable by all. It would act as a portfolio of achievement demonstrating a pupil’s ability to progress to further studies or employment. Universities could make clear their entrance requirements so that pupils could make informed choices at 16 rather than making option choices, as now, at 14.  And millions could be saved by abolishing exams at 16.

If Mr Gove is serious about making the English examination system equal to the best-performing countries then he should look at all the international evidence. He could start with looking in the Frequently asked Questions on this site.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 17:18

I'd start by integrating formative and summative assessment up to the age of 14. It's the future. Doing this successfully will change the way people think about assessment and accreditation.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 17:23

Yes Janet! I couldn't agree more. Exams simply are not a good way of assessing children; most children are actually quite frightened in exams; you can never do that well in a climate of fear...

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 19:03

Francis you're overdoing it. Exams aren't all bad and not all children do badly in them.

Exams are particularly bad at assessing particular aspects of students' progress.

High stakes exams are, in general, not a good idea for younger children.

Frightening the kids has some benefits - some of them work their socks off when they are scared and some parents put the effort in to helping them to get ready for them which is beneficial to them.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 09:57

When most of the world's top-performing countries have moved to graduation diplomas at 18, with even Hong Kong replacing its 'O' and 'A' level type exams with one final exam, it seems ludicrous, laughably inept, to suggest a return to a system rejected by the top-performers that Mr Gove says he wants England to emulate.

A cynic might say that Gove actually had no intention of re-instating 'O' levels. He got a lot of publicity and support from the more rabid wing of the Tory party and his cheerleaders in the media. But the purpose of the leak could be its use as a bargaining chip with the LibDems. "We'll drop our plans for 'O' levels if you accept our plans for...". At the same time Gove could say he's dropped the 'O' level idea because he's listened to the opposition.

A cynic might say that. I couldn't possibly comment. I have no evidence.

Alan's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 16:08

Janet, I don't agree. Stamford and the coastal strip are miles apart in terms of opportunity (and scrutiny). It isn’t possible to have graduation diplomas at 18 because there aren’t enough sixth forms on the coast, not that teach traditional A-levels. The same applies to other shire counties.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 16:45

The graduation diploma shouldn't just be about 'A' level type exams. It should cover a broad range of examinations and tests including vocational courses, practical work and so on. The end of compulsory education will soon be 18 - it should be possible to establish a diploma which would show what pupils know, understand and can do. It could embrace apprenticeship type training as well as academic exams.

Most of the world's high-performing countries have graduation at 18. I

Alan's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 19:03

We need practical skills, but labels vocational and academic are too divisive. Many high status occupations such as medical doctors have vocational content but are considered to be academic, yet the National Minimum Wage for apprentices is only £2.60 per hour. I was earning more than this in the 1970s as an apprentice electrician.

Students will have to stay in education and training until 17 from next year and 18 the following year. It will not necessarily mean having to stay on at school. It may be impracticable where schools have no sixth forms. Other options include work placements, community learning centres and volunteering. This is a worry in terms of standards, and where young people have additional needs.

In Lincolnshire, the availability of concessionary transport is restricted to nearest sixth forms / colleges irrespective of courses on offer and prior attainment. Government and LSN need to be aware of local context, of demographic and geographic profiles: added cuts to families, rurality, cost of fuel, hike in university fees and scrapping of EMA should mean we are pulling together but we are not (Louth). To reiterate, Stamford is in a much better position for post 16 compared to the coast.

I’m writing in defence of children and young people living near Mablethorpe if anyone is interested. I am full of admiration for our students and teachers. They have been working exceptionally hard over the past few months in preparation for GCSEs and have high aspirations.

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