Lib Dems want leaving age at 19 and end to GCSE

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The GCSE examination will be delivered another blow with the first official call from a main political party for it to be scrapped.

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis, will demand that the school leaving age be raised to 19 and he will urge the Government to abolish the exam taken every year by more than 600,000 pupils at 16.

Headteachers have already demanded its abolition, because growing numbers of youngsters now stay on in full-time education or training after 16. Mr Willis will tell the North of England education conference in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, on Friday that the time has come "to throw a grenade into the system".

He will add: "This Government has had wonderful opportunities to throw a grenade into the system and institute radical change, but it has failed to do so." Mr Willis will argue for full-time education or training up to a leaving age of 19, to ensure the next generation is equipped with the skills to compete in the 21st-century world.

Headteachers want tougher tests at 14 to replace the GCSE, which will give a clearer indication of whether youngsters should be pursuing a vocational or academic route between the ages of 14 and 19.

But Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, has made it clear she does not intend to scrap the exam or officially raise the leaving age when she announces her blueprint this month for educating those between 14 and 19, although she wants to encourage as many youngsters as possible to stay on in school.

Mr Willis will counter that by saying employers should be given increased funding to provide quality training for youngsters until they reach 18 or 19. "They should be allowed to tap into local authority budgets in return for providing an education and training package in the workplace," he will say.

He will call on the Government to introduce the reforms in its package of proposals to review education for pupils aged 14 to 19, also to be announced this month. As revealed in The Independent, this will also open up a route to university for thousands of youngsters who are opting to take up modern apprenticeships from 16.

"It is only very occasionally that you have had major radical change to the education system," Mr Willis told The Independent. The first was the introduction of universal education in 1870, the second was the introduction of compulsory secondary schooling in 1944 and the third was the Robbins report on expanding higher education in the Sixties.

The review of education for those between 14 and 19 being compiled by the Government provided another one, he said, but he suspected it would be only "tinkering" with the present system. Mr Willis will make clear he believes the GCSE will become redundant as an end-of-stage examination if no one is leaving full-time education at 16.

The Government must also provide top quality vocational courses for youngsters from the age of 14, he will add.

"We should regard the 14-to-19 stage as a graduation stage from school into the employment market," he will say. "We must stop people dropping out at 16. There is still a significant number of youngsters who do, [and that will] only add to the estimated seven million adults with poor literacy and numeracy skills we have in the UK."

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