Leading Article: It's time to scrap our biggest exam failure: the GCSE

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The Independent Culture
THOUSANDS OF GCSE candidates will rightly celebrate their success today after notching up a record improvement in top grades. Yet again, the proportion of entries receiving grades A*-C is up. But a closer look at the figures reveals some worrying trends. Because exam league tables and national targets focus on the percentage achieving the top grades, schools appear to be concentrating their efforts on average pupils and neglecting those at the bottom of the heap. The percentage of candidates awarded a grade C has risen more sharply than the proportion awarded As and Bs, while the gap between high-scoring and low-scoring pupils is rising.

The truth is that GCSE, introduced a decade ago to cater for all pupils, has proved to be a failure. It has become, like its predecessor, the O- level, an exam for the brightest. No one, least of all employers, takes much notice of the grades below C. Yet fewer than half of pupils achieve five A*-C grades, and about 40,000 pupils leave school each year without any qualifications. The GCSE has singularly failed to motivate the least able. A higher proportion of pupils is receiving the top grades than in O-level days, but too many are left firmly on the scrapheap.

So what is the solution? It is, alarmingly for New Labour, a rather radical one: GCSEs should be ditched. An academic exam at the end of compulsory schooling which fails to give half its pupils a qualification is worthless. And an exam at 16 is the last thing we need at a time when we are trying to encourage everyone to stay longer in education and training to help themselves and the economy. For pupils in America and most of Europe, there is no important public exam at 16: the first big hurdle comes at 18. In this country, the idea of a school-leaving certificate at 16 persists among parents, employers and the general public. The end of the GCSE would bolster the belief that, for the vast majority, secondary education ends at the age of 18.

The Government has already acknowledged that the GCSE makes no sense for some pupils. It is piloting vocational qualifications, and the popularity of a "certificate of achievement" for the least able is growing.

Ministers need to go further. The GCSE is pointless for bright pupils who simply go on to A-level and higher education. Nor is it much use for those who leave school at 16. Employers are not interested in whether people have an E in geography and an F in drama. They want to know whether they can spell, punctuate and add up. A basic skills certificate would be a much more appropriate qualification than an outdated school-leaving exam.

GCSEs are an archaic and unnecessary burden on an over-examined system. Any government committed to real reform would quietly bury them.