Lisa Freedman: GCSEs are not too easy – they're just irrelevant

They're a hangover from an age when most students left school at 16

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My 16-year-old son gets his GCSE results today. With a reasonable degree of luck, he should achieve a decent sprinkling of As and A*s to ornament his CV. A credit, without doubt, to his own hard work, some excellent teaching and his long-suffering parents. Nonetheless, I think the past few months have been a complete waste of his time.

In order to achieve today's outcome of 10 GCSEs, he sat 25 exam papers in May and June. Earlier in the year, he spent a further two weeks preparing for and writing two "controlled assessments". And that's not to mention the voids that were Christmas and Easter, when the entire school holidays were devoted to revision.

In seems to me both inhumane and idiotic to consume four years of adolescence preparing for and sitting public examinations. When I try to explain this peculiarly British idiosyncrasy to my overseas clients, they look at me in frank astonishment. If Michael Gove wants to borrow from abroad, he might consider adopting a policy – widespread elsewhere – of a single school leaving exam set at the end of the schooling years.

We are today a nation foolishly in thrall to statistics – of football scores and public-exam results. Of course, this has its upside. I was recently standing nervously at a bus stop surrounded by a crowd of hooded youths. I needn't have worried, however, they were far too engrossed in a conversation about the Science mark scheme to notice me.

This February, the headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, called for the abolition of GCSEs, not, as the Government constantly stresses, because they're too easy, but because they're irrelevant, a hangover from an age when most students left school at 16. From 2015, the entire student population will be required to remain in full-time education or training until 18, and Mr Little recommends we now make a shift to a general school leaving certificate, giving teachers more power over what they teach and preventing the syllabus being dictated by the exam system.

Of course, he is not the first to have considered this option. In 2004, Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, supplied the last government with a highly regarded proposal to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a single diploma. His suggestions were directed at ensuring basic standards of literacy and numeracy, providing courses with academic stretch, raising the status of vocational qualifications and, most importantly for me, reducing the number of exams.

Instead of looking over his shoulder to see what's going on in Sweden and Singapore, or re-reading his copies of Pope and Dryden, Mr Gove might profitably ask an obliging civil servant for a copy of the Tomlinson Report. Pupils, parents, teachers – and even standards – might be better off as a result.

Lisa Freedman runs the schools advisory service At The School Gates

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