Do we need a Public Examination at 16?

Sally Tomlinson's picture
English governments of whatever political persuasion have  problems in coming to terms with  a mass  education  system  educating  all young people to  higher levels .  By the 21st century it was clear that  all young people would  enter a competitive global economy and  jobs at all levels would need some kind of a qualification. A Labour government decided in  2008 that all students should stay in  some form of education or training until 17 in 2013 rising to 18 in 2015, and although modifications were made in a 2011 Act , Raising the Participation Age (RPA) is currently on the agenda.

Why then do we need a public examination at 16, especially one examining a narrow range of subjects which is already skewing the curriculum offered in many schools.  The history of  an exam at 16 is not edifying.  As soon as schools were re -categorised  on 1st April 1945  (grammar, technical and secondary modern),  secondary modern schools began campaigning for their pupils to take the School Certificate, the main grammar school external exam designed as a leaving certificate, or for  progress for around 5% to study for  university entrance.

A powerful lobby, which included the poet T.S Eliot,  argued  that only a ‘gifted minority’ of young people should take  superior  examinations, but there was also a lobby arguing for the abolition of any external school leaving exam.  The post-war Labour government’s response was to forbid any school other than a grammar school from entering pupils for any external exam under the age of 17. Thus when the school leaving age was raised to 15 in April 1947 and a General Certificate  of Education at  ordinary (O) and then advanced (A) levels proposed, secondary modern pupils were effectively excluded. Furthermore to ‘pass’ in the new GCE, starting in 1951,  pupils must reach the same standard as the ‘credit’ level of the old school certificate. Shades of a recent GCSE debacle!

Under a Conservative government in the 1950s there was much lobbying from secondary moderns to enter pupils for GCE, but in 1960 the Beloe Committee recommended that from 1962 the top 20% of pupils should study for an O level GCE, the next 40% a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE)- nothing for the bottom 40%!

Fast forward to the early 1980s,with much youth unemployment and a 1980 Conservative decision to reform exams at 16. With many complaints, especially from those arguing against coursework assessment, the  General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), was to be available for all 16 year olds. Despite evidence  of the positive effects of coursework assessment  John Major’s government in 1991  limited it’s use  to 20% of marks.

A National Council for Vocational Qualifications, was set up in 1986 and developed National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ’s) based on competence in a workplace. By 1991 General National Vocational Qualifications, (GNVQS) intended to incorporate both  academic and vocational elements were introduced, which  by 1995  were accepted as ‘equivalent’ to GCSE as were Business and  Technology Council exams (BTEC). While GNVQ’s disappeared in 2007, the Coalition government  in 2011 decided that ‘equivalence’ must go,  and an ‘ebacc’ of five traditional subjects predominate at 16. This had the immediate effect of narrowing the school curriculum, with music and design and technology teachers being early casualties  and the possibility of vocationally oriented courses diminishing, even before the grand announcement in September 2012  that GCSE’s would eventually disappear and an English Baccalaureate assessed by final exams at 16      become the new currency.

But for what?  In the 1990s an astonishing numbers of associations called for reform of  the 14-19 curriculum and qualifications, with no divide by public examination at 16. Sources as diverse as the CBI, the Trades Union Congress, the Royal Society of Arts,  the Advisory Council on Education, the Association of sixth-form Principals, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, the Girls Schools Association, the Headmasters conference, and more, urged  a reformed post-14 curriculum.

In 1990 the IPPR publication  A British Baccalaureate (Finegold, Keep,Miliband et al 1990) suggested an Advanced Diploma for all at 18 and  in  1992  a Shadow Education Minister argued for the abolition of GCSE and a 14-19 curriculum offered to all in non-selective Community Colleges  ( Fatchett 1992). In October 2004 a long-awaited report  of the committee chaired by Mike Tomlinson (DfES 2004) which recommended a Diploma Framework with  ‘lines of learning’  forming a ladder of progression at entry, foundation, intermediate and   advanced levels, was rejected immediately, with Prime Minister Blair issuing a statement that GCSE and A levels would remain.  Despite this, by  2008  the government had agreed the  creation of  Studio (enterprise) Schools for 14-18 year olds and Lords Kenneth Baker and Ron Dearing (who sadly died in 2009) were planning to set up 14-19 University Technical Colleges (UTCs), both initiatives later supported by the Coalition government.

So here we are again with a pointless and divisive public examination at 16  in train, with a lack of coherence between pre and post-16 education, and  vocal opposition from a variety of organisations including the Association of School and College Leaders, The Girls Day School Trust, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and Lord Baker himself.   Arguments for a ‘gifted minority’ taking a superior exam at 16 are becoming risible as a preparation for all young people  for a global economy. Ministers, their Departments, and Ofqual (the Office for Qualifications) would be better employed working out, hopefully with input from all those who actually work with the young people,  what programmes of study and their assessment are  actually suitable for all young people to 18/19 for a vastly changed labour market and their own personal development.

Beloe Report. (1960)  Secondary Schools Examinations other than GCE  London.HMSO

Fatchett, D. (1992) “Count on the Comprehensive”  The Guardian 10th June

Finegold, D.Keep,E.Milband,D.Raffe,D.Spours,K.Young,M. (1990) A British Baccalaureat London. Institute for Public Policy Research

DfES (2004) 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform; Final Report of the Working group on 14-19 Reform  Nottingham. DfES.

(Professor) Sally Tomlinson is an Emeritus Professor at Goldsmith’s College University of London and a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Education at Oxford University. Her new book Ignorant Yobs?: Low Attainers in a Global Knowledge Economy is out in December.






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Alasdair Smith's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 09:41

Thank you for this timely historical perspective. The willingness of politicians to hang on to qualifications at 16 is partly due to their slavish adherence to league tables. Remove them and the whole competitive, market structure comes crashing down. Even some academy heads are beginning to see the lunacy of the education market. When it becomes clear that success at GCSE (or whatever) is rationed by norm-referencing, it also becomes clear that there must be winners and losers! The market can never solve the historic problem of the long tail of underachievement in our schools.

We really need to re-frame the whole education debate. Unfortunately neither Twigg nor Milliband seem willing to take this step. We need a new, national education movement that makes the case for reform, using ideas (not copying) from Finland, Alberta and elsewhere. That means we need to organise ourselves - as professionals, parents, students and so on.

Progressive and systemic education reform is possible, as the 1963 National Campaign For Education demonstrated. The next two years are crucial. We must fight Gove at every opportunity, for in resisting his plans we generate debate. But we also need to come together to think about a new vision for education which is comprehensive, progressive and democratic. A good local school for every child is possible even in the crazy logic of capitalism.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 15:35

It is time for exams at 16 to go. Few major countries have high stakes exams at 16 - most have some kind of graduation at 18 (see faqs above). There is an increasing number of voices calling for the scrapping of exams at 16. Jon Coles, group chief executive of the United Learning Trust and the United Church Schools Trust who was previously director general for education standards in the Department for Education, has added his voice to those listed by Sally. In a recent TES article he called for a reform of the exam system.

Alasdair is correct about norm-referencing but norm-referencing was the only way that GCSE C could remain as a sign of "above average" ability. I have been disturbed about how GCSE C has been downgraded from "above-average" in the late 1980s to the grade expected of all 16-year-olds (even a threshold of literacy in some quarters). I have called in the past for a return to GCSE C being a sign of above average.

However, norm-referencing hides fluctuations in exam marks - one year's average can be different to another. This means that a borderline pupil could get a C in a year when the average mark was low but only achieve a D when the average mark was high.

Such concerns are now, however, irrelevant. Exams at 16 are out-of-date - it's time to move on.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 17:34

There are two main reasons to keep qualifications at 16.
1. Students will not continue with all their subjects beyond 16 and it is useful if they have accreditation for subjects they have done until 16 when they leave school.
2. If you give students challenging targets many of them will rise to meet them.

However with modern technologies we could do assessment completely differently - combining formative and summative assessment, using examinations only part of the time (and providing alternative forms of assessment for students who can't do themselves justice in exam settings) and providing much more detail regarding precisely what has been done and what has been achieved through QR codes on certificates.

In my opinion we should work bottom up to explore and establish new norms in the least sensitive situations first. So we should leave GCSEs alone for now while we work on combining formative and summative assessment first to replace SATS in the ways I described in my 10 part blog which starts here:

Michael O'Brien's picture
Sun, 30/09/2012 - 21:38

I absolutely agree with the idea of the campaign to end exams at 16. As Lord Baker said, the problem with Gove is not that he is too radical but that he is not radical enough when it came to the GCSE exams question. That we should abolish a set of exams which are in effect still a School Leavers Certificate at 16 when it is no longer relevant when we are raising the staying on age to 18.

My experience of 14-18 education is a Canadian one where we all stayed in full time study until we were 18 and we have achieved our High School Diploma. Further employers would not think to employ anyone in a fulltime post before they were 18 and finished high school. My home province of Ontario like many of Canada's provinces have no external exams whatsoever however this does not apparently damage the country's performance in the PISA assessments - placing sixth in 2011 compared to 26th for the UK.

The history of the GSCE have been better described above but simply summarised the idea of a set of examinations at 16 in preparation for school leaving are anachronistic. They restrict the potential of young people by labelling more than 4 out of 10 16 year olds as failures. This alone is child abuse.

Further GCSEs are less and less relevant to a young person's progression onto post 16 learning. You will find many voices of lecturers, managers and leaders in post 16 education who will tell you that GCSE passes are not a real indication of a young person's ability but more often a reflection of the skills of their school to prepare them for exams.

We need a different approach.

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