The GCSE - A system that does not work

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The Independent Online
Some half a million 16-year-olds will this morning get to know the results of GCSE examinations which will have a strong influence on their future lives. Few of them will be uncertain about what their grades mean to the outside world. Through their schools, their peers, their parents and the various media channels they will have come to learn that, despite what Sir Ron Dearing and others may have to say about vocational qualifications, those treasured A to C grades at GCSE are the ones which future employers and universities are looking for.

No matter that lower GCSE grades may represent a tremendous effort and achievement for some. For most young people scanning their results, anything less than a C in a particular subject will have the scent of failure about it.

Since the publication of GCSE results in local and national newspapers, even obtaining the odd higher grade or two is perceived not to be up to scratch. Nearly 50 per cent of 16-year-olds now obtain five or more A to C grades and the media regards anything less than this as small beer.

The sense of failure today will hit many young people like a tidal wave, and the unfortunate result is that, even though increasing numbers stay in full-time education after 16, many drop by the wayside; numbers fall dramatically by the time 17th and 18th birthdays arrive.

Yet it does not have to be like this. Why do we have to impose an examination on all our 16-year-olds over a two-month period in the summer every year? It is like everybody taking their driving test at the same time, rather than when they are ready. It encourages failure and inhibits the development of many youngsters.

The GCSE examination is taken at a stage of development when teenagers are least able to cope with the extra pressures involved. The two-year build-up to the examination comes at a time when the physical and emotional changes taking place in young people are at their most intense. They are uncertain of their place in society, and are preoccupied with developing their characters to interact with a rapidly changing world. The choices in modern life are far more numerous than those for any previous generation, and the distractions are far greater.

Boys are particularly susceptible to outside influences when preparing for GCSE. They are thought to mature more slowly than girls, and as a result are less equipped to cope with the added pressures of public examinations at 16. This morning's results will have re-emphasised the point by showing just how much better the girls have performed. By the time boys reach A-levels they appear to catch up with the girls, suggesting that the early GCSE examination may not be in many boys' best interests.

The blueprint for rational change to our examination system has already been drawn up by the National Commission on Education. In 1993 the Commission recommended introducing a new General Education Diploma, to be awarded at two levels: Ordinary level, reached normally at age 16; and Advanced level, normally at age 18. These diplomas would replace the range of present qualifications including GCSE, A-levels, BTEC and other vocational qualifications.

At both levels the diploma was envisaged as a "grouped award" requiring achievement in a range of subjects. However, it is its flexibility, and the manner in which the diploma is acquired, which would do most to encourage young people not to become disheartened, and to stay on in education. At both levels the diploma would be organised in modules and achievement would be continuously assessed, giving students a clear indication of what they have to do to improve. This is particularly important to many teenage boys, who look for quick feedback.

The most innovative part of the proposals takes a leaf from the Open University's method of examining. All modules would be separately certificated and given credits, and any student who, for whatever reason, failed to meet the requirements of the diploma at age 16 or 18 could resume studies later on rather than having to start again from the beginning. Credits already obtained would still stand, and count towards the diploma at a later date.

No age limit would be set for the award of the diploma. Credits could be earned earlier or later than the normal ages of 16 and 18 and, in the words of the Commission, adults should be able to set themselves the goal of achieving the award of a diploma at any age.

GCSEs should be scrapped. The present system of examining at 16 no longer meets the requirements of our young people, and disillusions many of them. We are still using it to sift out the academic elite, rather than to encourage the search for knowledge by youngsters of all abilities. The National Commission's recommendations would do much to overcome this. They might also create a climate in which it is accepted that all young people should continue with formal learning, at least to the age of 18.

Tony Mooney is head of Rutlish School in the London borough of Merton. He is writing in a personal capacity.