Headmistress: GCSEs have 'run their course'

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The Independent Online

GCSEs have "run their course" and should be scrapped, a leading headmistress has suggested.

With the school leaving age set to be raised to 18, when students sit qualifications such as A-levels, national exams at age 16 are no longer relevant, according to Dr Helen Wright, the new president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA).



In one of her first interviews as president, Dr Wright told the Press Association that a shake-up of how secondary school pupils are assessed is needed.



"On one level we are raising the school leaving age to 18, why do we need to focus on the age of 16? Why shouldn't we be looking at children earlier or later? There are certain things they need to be able to do, to be at a certain level in English and maths.



"But why are we focusing on a very academic form of assessment at the age of 16 and then at 18. Shouldn't we be scrapping the one at 16 or diminishing its value or importance? Maybe making it an internal school check and also possibly from an early age looking at different routes according to different rates and practices."



Dr Wright suggested there needs to be more flexibility to allow students to take different options at different times. For example, she said, a student may not be interested in taking GCSE French at 14, but may be interested in a one-year course at age 17. More flexibility would allow students to focus on different areas of education at different times.



She said Education Secretary Michael Gove was "right" to say children should know about core subjects such as English, maths, science and humanities.



"The question is, is it absolutely necessary to have them as GCSEs?" she said.



Dr Wright later added: "I think GCSEs have run their course."



There is a "big jump" between what teenagers are required to know at GCSE and A-level, she said, which is why many schools are now sitting GCSEs earlier anyway, to allow more time for higher study.



Dr Wright, who is also headmistress of St Mary's School Calne, a private girls boarding school, suggested that an internally assessed but externally moderated system is needed. Pupils could be assessed when they reach a certain birthday, or when teachers feel they are ready. Children learn things at different times, and at different rates, she said.



She acknowledged that revamping the system is a "big ask", but added: "If we are not asking these questions we are not thinking big thoughts and we are not actually going to move forward."



Dr Wright also said that more emphasis needs to be put on providing different routes for teenagers to take after they leave school at 18.



There should be more work experience in schools, more contacts with business, training and opportunities for pupils to develop entrepreneurial skills.



She raised concerns that university is being sold to school leavers as the only option, and suggested that the higher education sector has become too big, without a clear focus. The huge number of students going to university means that not all courses are worthwhile.



"We need to be clear about why they're there, what they're seeking to do. Universities can't be all things to all people. You can balance research and teaching, the question is for what particular areas do you need research and teaching and is that the right thing?



"What's happened is that courses that are of themselves, are of interest, because of the sheer numbers going, are strung out into three-year degrees which isn't necessarily effective for them.



"When people go to summer courses or one-year courses or even evening classes, they are gaining as much from that as some three-year degrees. Certain courses have been made into degrees where it needn't be the case."



She added: "On the whole, in my experience, the courses left in clearing aren't the most worthwhile. Sometimes there are worthwhile courses but often they aren't. The problem is young people have very few other options. So they go to university even when it's not the right choice for them."



With options for school leavers limited, "What choices do they have?" Dr Wright questioned.



"We should be looking at a range of pathways. It's university or nothing and that's wrong."



She suggested that the last government's attempts to improve social mobility had caused problems.



"Social mobility is right, we should encourage social mobility. We need to encourage young people to have aspirations. Where that went wrong is tacking on to the idea that what social mobility means is you need to go to university. That's not right."



As a result everyone is applying to university and there has been no focus on other work and training routes, Dr Wright said.

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