David Hart: Why don't we scrap the GCSE examination now?

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The Independent Online

Nobody can pretend that the system for educating 14- to 19-year-olds meets the needs of all students. Sixteen remains the leaving age for too many who then suffer from disadvantage and disaffection. Education Maintenance Allowances may encourage more to stay on, but if they are not offered a curriculum after the age of 16 that is relevant they will drop out again.

Nobody can pretend that the system for educating 14- to 19-year-olds meets the needs of all students. Sixteen remains the leaving age for too many who then suffer from disadvantage and disaffection. Education Maintenance Allowances may encourage more to stay on, but if they are not offered a curriculum after the age of 16 that is relevant they will drop out again.

Vocational qualifications lack credibility and recognition. Too many are irrelevant to the needs of employers, and vocational routes into higher education are inadequate. It is ironic that an acute shortage of plumbers, electricians and joiners has led to a stampede for jobs that should be recognised as vital in their own right.

The new AS- and A2-levels for sixth formers have not delivered the breadth of study that is common across the industrialised world. The support of employers and universities for a broader curriculum after 16 must be won, otherwise students will have precious little incentive to emulate their fellow Europeans, where a wide range of subjects is commonplace. The Government's response to these challenges spelt out in the 14 to 19 strategy document this week indicates it has learnt from past mistakes. Ministers recognise the need to improve retention rates, and to broaden education and skills to remove the academic and vocational divide.

Their solutions are not always logical. But they understand the need for short- and long-term goals. The weakest part of the document is at Key Stage 4, or GCSE level. An "à la carte" curriculum menu is all very well. But are religion and sex education really more important than a modern foreign language? Surely the new system for assessing and encouraging language skills – outlined in the new languages strategy paper – provides the answer.

Likewise the Government is too timid over the GCSE. Retaining an examination at 16 is at odds with the desire to keep young people in education. There is a real danger that GCSEs will continue to be treated as a leaving certificate. And league tables certainly do not help. The Government's aspirations for high quality and relevant vocational qualifications are to be applauded. But I am not sure that the response really articulates clearly enough how these aspirations are to be met.

The Government is stronger on solutions for those over the age of 16. I can understand only too well why the AS/A2 reforms must be stabilised, post-Tomlinson, for the next few years. Nevertheless, the formation of a task group to look at key issues sends a strong signal that longer-term transformation is firmly on the agenda. Abandoning the much criticised idea of A-level with Distinction is a real step in the right direction. The group can now focus on achievement at 19, and meeting the needs of students of all abilities without any intellectual baggage constraining it. Above all, the presence of employers and universities will, for the first time, create a forum that can genuinely influence government policy.

The biggest prize of all would be a coherent framework at 19. The National Association of Head Teachers has campaigned for a baccalaureate-type award for years. Our lobbying is beginning to pay off. The Government's response promotes this award as a long-term front runner. It must be available at several levels to meet the needs of all students. It must recognise activity and achievement across the board. It must provide more stretch than other options. Above all, it must enhance coherence, a quality sadly missing at present.

The Association has never argued for the IB as a model for all. It is a system for the more able. But the structure and delivery of the IB is worthy of examination.

A baccalaureate-type award that recognises the achievement of students of all abilities is the only long-term way forward. There will be fierce arguments over the virtues of a compulsory element of study. Employers and universities must sign up because they have the ability to sabotage outcomes. That is why the task group has to succeed. It has been given a real opportunity to produce a blueprint that will solve the unique weaknesses that have beset the English post-16 system for far too long. The Association will certainly do anything it can to achieve this objective.

The writer is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

education@independent.co.uk

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