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.