Lord Baker: GCSEs came in on my watch – and improved British education


As Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Education when pupils sat the first GCSE exams in 1988, I welcome the debate that Michael Gove has launched. When I became Education Secretary I was convinced that the key to raising education standards across the country was a national curriculum.

Children of broadly similar abilities were achieving widely different standards from one part of the country to the next. I was sure that a national curriculum would narrow the gap.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Rab Butler, who said that all children should "go through a common mill of education" to acquire a shared knowledge of the country and world they live in.

However, if I had the task of fashioning the national curriculum today, I would limit its scope to children aged five to 14.

Children need a clear grasp of the English language so that they can understand and be understood. They need a good understanding of arithmetic. They need an appreciation of physics, chemistry and biology. They need to know about the country they live in: our history, culture and traditions. They need to be able to place Britain in context by studying geography, world history and the cultures and religions of the world, and by learning languages other than English. In addition, children need to find out how things are made, how to use tools and resources, like the internet, how to express themselves through dance, music and art, and to discover their strengths and weaknesses on the playing field.

These are the foundations for life, work and further learning. They represent the knowledge, skills and experiences which, in my view, schools should provide for children up to the age of 14. At this age, not at 16, pupils should be set a challenging test.

The whole purpose of the GCSE and O-level was that it represented the end of formal schooling for most students, but today that is not the case – only about 6 per cent of those aged 16 now choose to go into work. And next year the minimum school leaving age is being increased to 17, then to 18 two years after that.

Michael Gove is right to question the rigour of GCSE exams in English, maths and science, which have suffered from a competitive downgrading by the examining boards. But other subjects must also be rigorous.

In the University Technical Colleges I am now promoting, the curriculum consists of the three GCSE subjects, a foreign language – German for engineering not for Goethe – and either history or geography. These are taught alongside practical hands-on subjects for 40 per cent of the school day. The qualifications for these must be just as rigorous as in English, maths or science because that is what employers need. There is no place for second-rate qualifications.

The problem that my predecessor Keith Joseph found with the old Certificate of Secondary Education, the CSE – which Mr Gove wants to reintroduce – was that it had become a valueless piece of paper. Employers didn't rate it but students who obtained it were led to believe it was a passport to jobs and success. It wasn't. So don't resurrect a failure.

In this great debate the age of 14 will become central because young people at that age are capable of deciding what type of school or college they want to go to – whether academic, technical, artistic or vocational.