The GCSE - Results we can count on

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Today's GCSE results come amid the annual debate about standards. This debate seems to rage at its cruellest on the morning when hundreds of thousands of anxious pupils receive their A-level or GCSE grades. So the first thing that has to be said this morning is, congratulations to those who have gained good results.

But we must also examine how we can ensure total confidence in the results to avoid this ritual continuing.

Last week's A-levels showed a slightly higher than average increase in the number of passes, yet proportionally fewer students now take A-levels, with more taking vocational qualifications. There was also another substantial drop in the numbers taking science.

However, our position compared with our own targets, or the achievements of other countries, will have barely improved. When next week's vocational results are included, we will be little nearer our national target of 60 per cent gaining the equivalent of two A-levels by 2000. (Currently 44 per cent reach this level). And we will remain far off the 75-80 per cent achieved in Germany and Japan.

We must ask similar questions about today's GCSE results. At 16, about 43-44 per cent will have achieved five GCSE passes at grades A-C. By age 19, the proportion is about 68 per cent, including level 2 vocational qualifications.

Progress is too slow towards our national target of 85 per cent. The recent Skills Audit showed that we lag well behind countries such as France and Germany at this level.

In addition, Youth Trainees are supposed to gain NVQ level 2, yet most drop out before gaining the qualification - and a fifth of those remaining fail to qualify. Labour's Target 2000 replaces Youth Training with new courses in college and in the workplace to ensure that every young person reaches this level.

Our economic competitiveness depends on our matching the skills achieved by young people in countries such as Taiwan and Korea. Yet the presumption of some in this country is that we can, and should, educate only an elite. We must reject that proposition firmly.

We should set national targets so that most young people gain qualifications to enable them to make a full contribution to the workforce - and improve access to higher education. The move towards broader A-levels and improved vocational qualifications, with a new, overarching diploma, which we have recommended, will help produce a better qualified workforce.

All students should gain key skills in addition to their specialist choices. But as we introduce such reforms, it is essential that there is total public confidence in the rigour of our examinations system. As more students take vocational qualifications, we must tackle the weaknesses of NVQs and GNVQs so that both qualifications have the rigour and esteem they deserve.

Equally, we must have full confidence in our examiners. Newspaper stories about passes being awarded at ridiculously low levels or of exam papers with dubious questions do much to undermine confidence in the entire system.

Some sensible reforms have already been proposed for GCSEs: a reduction in the number of syllabuses and a common set of questions within core papers. We must keep these changes under full review - and if necessary introduce even greater levels of commonality.

With A-levels, we should consider whether there are too many syllabuses available. There are 99 different Maths syllabuses and 41 in English. A rationalisation of these - and the examination of whether core questions might be introduced - could help to improve confidence in standards.

We should consider giving the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority the power to regulate A-level syllabuses. We should also consider making the monitoring of consistency in standards statutory.

But the question mark will remain over our examinations system until we have a thorough review of the examination boards as well. This may mean further reductions in their numbers - perhaps one board for England as a whole, or limits in the ability of schools to "shop around". It is intolerable for young people in one area of the country to fear that their performance is judged differently from those elsewhere.

The time has come once and for all to put a stop to the doubts that pervade each year's results. When we get the conclusions of the government study into whether standards have fallen over time, we may have some reassurance. A review of the boards and courses will give us the greater confidence we need.

Then we can concentrate on what should be our real objective: increasing the numbers of young people gaining both GCSEs and A-levels, and their vocational equivalents. That is the only way in which the next generation will succeed in the global economy of the future.

David Blunkett is Labour's spokesman for education.