Are GCSEs becoming irrelevant?

Janet Downs's picture
“It seems to me both inhumane and idiotic to consume four years of adolescence preparing for and sitting public examinations. When I try to explain this peculiarly British idiosyncrasy to my overseas clients, they look at me in frank astonishment. If Michael Gove wants to borrow from abroad, he might consider adopting a policy – widespread elsewhere – of a single school leaving exam set at the end of the schooling years,” wrote Lisa Freedman in the Independent.

Freedman is right. Most of the world’s top performing countries in international league tables have a graduation diploma at 18*. But the UK and tiny Singapore cling to major exams at 16 and 18. And Gove is contemplating returning to a two-tier system which would recreate the old Ordinary Level/Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) system. In the mid-1980s the then Conservative Government replaced GCE/CSE exams with one single exam: the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) which would show what each 16-year-old knew, understood and could do.

Today most young people stay in education or training until the age of 18 so it’s time to change an exam system geared to pupils leaving school at 16. Freedman suggests that the Government should look again at the report by Sir Mike Tomlinson in 2004 which recommended the following:

1 A final diploma allowing for certification of all levels of achievement;

2 This diploma could be approached by multiple pathways (eg academic, vocational or combination);

3 The involvement of all stakeholders in the development of the diploma (pupils, parents, public, employers, higher education providers, teachers).

Tomlinson said the new system would need extensive and careful trials, monitoring and evaluation over a period of about ten years. Compare this measured approached with Michael Gove’s rushed and imposed approach. Tomlinson’s motto was “Evolution, not revolution.”

The then Labour Government lacked the courage to act on Tomlinson’s recommendations. If they had done so then this country would have been only two years away from a world-class examination system. Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Stephen Twigg, has admitted this was a mistake.

However, it’s not too late to look again at Tomlinson’s report. It would be better to start the process now than wait for the next Labour government to pick up the pieces of an exam system shattered by Gove’s inept and damaging interference. Freedman concluded her report as follows:

“Instead of looking over his shoulder to see what's going on in Sweden and Singapore, or re-reading his copies of Pope and Dryden, Mr Gove might profitably ask an obliging civil servant for a copy of the Tomlinson Report. Pupils, parents, teachers – and even standards – might be better off as a result.”

*See FAQs above  – international comparisons - for further details
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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 26/08/2012 - 22:44

Tomlinson's recommendations are much more achievable given the kinds of emerging technologies now being employed by the likes of TLM and the Modern Bacc.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/08/2012 - 10:46

It seems the Institute for Fiscal Studies is calling for a "radical rethink" of GCSE exams:

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/08/2012 - 11:35

The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that England is out-of-step with most other countries. Let's hope Mr Gove actually reads the international evidence instead of just saying he does.

"England is actually rather unusual in having a high stakes school leaving exam at 16. Most countries focus on exams when most young people in fact leave school at 17 or 18. The system in England looks rather like a left over from a time when the majority of young people did expect to leave school at 16. Now that the vast majority stay on past 16 to do further qualifications there must be some question over the role of a set of exams which may signal to some that leaving at 16 is expected, particularly in the context of government policy to raise the "education participation age" to 18."

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