Calls to replace GCSEs with graduation at 18 intensify – now’s the time to overhaul exam system to match the best in the world

Janet Downs's picture
“The current qualifications system evolved for a world where school ends at 16 and a minority stay on. We can reset expectations now. Across the world, the most successful education systems expect the vast majority of young people to achieve at advanced level by the age of 18, whether in academic subjects or vocationally.” So says academy chain boss, Jon Coles, in TES.

Coles argues that there is less need today for “employer-recognised qualifications” taken at age 16. The present examination system, he writes, evolved because of the need to provide qualifications for school leavers following the raising of the school-leaving age in 1972. He reminded readers that before 1972 “the majority took no examinations at all: 91% of 15-year-old school leavers passed no O level or CSE.” These statistics are a salutary reminder to those who hark back to the “golden age” of O levels. And Coles knows what he’s talking about – he used to be director general for education standards in the Department for Education (DfE).

Coles warns that “with more than 90% of young people staying on beyond 16, our approach to assessment at that age already looks anachronistic.”

Coles is correct. It is time to overhaul our examination system so it matches what the rest of the world is doing (see FAQs above for more details). But will Secretary of State, Michael Gove, and his new junior minister, Elizabeth Truss, listen to these wise words?

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/09/2012 - 10:29

Gove is not going to listen. According to the Mail On Sunday (another "leak", presumably) "The Education Secretary will announce the new exams on Tuesday in a joint press conference with Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg ...The reforms are designed to help schools in England catch up with other countries which have left us trailing in school standards."

So Gove is going to ignore what is happening in other countries (see FAQs above). Gove is forcing an out-of-date exam system on to English pupils. Parents with children in secondary school now should be furious.

According to the Mail on Sunday, Gove has said he wants the system up-and-running before the next election - so much for sober analysis, consultation, trialling, feedback, evaluation and training. Fortunately, Clegg has won a concession - the exam won't begin until 2015 which would give Labour a chance to scrap it and replace it with a better system implemented over time.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/09/2012 - 10:30

Teachers like me, who were around when GCSE was first brought in, will feel a sense of déjà vu when they read this statement about Gove's proposed exam:

"And in a controversial move designed to counter claims that GCSEs are far too easy for bright pupils, questions in the new exam will be graded, starting with easy questions and building up to difficult questions which will stretch the cleverest pupils. It means that less able pupils may be unable to complete the paper."

That was exactly how GCSE worked - one paper for all candidates with graded questions. This was replaced with the present system of foundation and higher paper because (wait for it) a single paper was accused of not stretching the cleverest pupils.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/09/2012 - 16:55

More voices are bringing up the idea of exams at 18: Lord Baker, Bill Watkins (Specialist Schools and Academies Trust), and Dr Kevin Stannard (Girls' Day School Trust). Only Nick Seaton, Campaign for Read Education, called for a return of O levels because it was impossible for a single exam to cater for all abilities. But that's what has been decided. In what has been described as a "controversial move", the new exam with be a single one (see above for more details).

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