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