Alan Smithers: Why GCSEs must not be jettisoned

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The Independent Online

The educational establishment seems to be losing its marbles. Last week's GCSE results, indicating that the exam is working well, were greeted with yet further calls for it to be ditched in favour of an all-embracing diploma.

The main argument appears to be that because not enough young people continue in education and training after 16, school-leaving should be fudged to lock them into an award culminating at the age of 19.

An important principle is at stake here. After compulsory schooling, it is surely down to the students to shape their own studies. This implies that the qualifications structure should offer choice and flexibility across an array of self-contained options, or, in other words, something such as we have now in GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

The other claimed advantages of a baccalaureate-style award are also prescriptive. It is suggested that it will increase breadth of studies, but this will be decided by a committee rather than, as at present, by the students. It is said to be inclusive, but supposing the students do not want to be included? Could it be that their reluctance to participate post-16 is a comment on what is on offer, and this is what needs to be addressed? The grouped award is also promoted as the means of increasing the status of vocational studies, but there is more to esteem than being arbitrarily wrapped up with the academic.

A linked proposal is that GCSE examining should be replaced by teacher assessment to lighten the load. Since A-levels were changed in 2000, there has undoubtedly been too much assessment. But it doesn't follow that GCSE should be the exam to go. The new AS-level, which has been responsible for the increase in assessment, would seem more of a candidate. Why can't it be taken just by those who want a one-year qualification?

So long as 16 remains the end of compulsory schooling, there is a strong case for having a respected national examination such as the GCSE at this age to provide focus and incentive for pupils, and reliable information to potential employers. To command confidence, this means externally set tests taken under standard conditions and independently marked. It would not be enough to leave it to internal assessment, which is subject to all the vagaries of particular circumstances.

This is not to say that the GCSE cannot be improved. It has opened doors for many beyond the 40 per cent who took O-level, but it is still mainly part of the academic ladder to university. There are no equivalent "ladders" into employment. Practical talents are severely under-represented in the qualifications structure, and there are few opportunities for them to be expressed. It is also important that employers come on board to help to develop vocational GCSEs that they will recognise and reward, instead of merely barracking from the sidelines.

There is also the issue of whether the GCSE examinations are too easy. Some heads of highly selective schools think so, and are allowing their pupils to bypass them. Ken Boston, the straight-talking chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, got into a bit of bother recently by appearing to welcome this. But he was surely right to point to flexibility as one of the strengths of the present arrangements. Because the GCSE may be appropriately skipped by the very few, that does not mean it should be scrapped for all.

The proposed diploma would not solve any of the present problems surrounding the GCSE and A-levels; rather, it would add a raft of new ones - what to make compulsory, and how to combine the disparate elements, for example. It is, however, a bureaucrat's dream: everyone neatly classified and labelled by a score on one of four levels. Pity the poor people at the very bottom, with no escape, as there is now.

It is also a charter for telling others what they have to do. But the point of education is to liberate people to get on with their lives, the purpose of qualifications to enable them to move in their chosen direction. Whatever its faults, the GCSE is part of a qualifications structure that does this.

The writer is a professor of education and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

education@independent.co.uk

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