Leading article: Do we need GCSEs if the school leaving age is raised?

The results are welcome but the exam's purpose needs rethinking

There is some welcome news in this year's GCSE results. For a start, the fact that schools are returning to the separate sciences of biology, chemistry and physics in large numbers bodes well for the future. They are more demanding exams than the broad science GCSE that so many in the state sector have been put in for in the last few years.

What is not welcome, though, is any real assessment of the future of the GCSE exam itself. It is no longer the "rite of passage" that every school leaver should have as they go out in the world of work. More and more 16 and 17-year-olds, happily, are staying on in either education or training – especially at this time of recession when jobs are scarce. The exam is no longer the final summation of what most individuals have achieved.

What is to be done then? It certainly is the case that more focus should be placed on vocational qualifications. The introduction of the Government's flagship new diplomas are an attempt to rectify that. At present they are a hybrid – combining both academic and vocational content – and are being viewed with scepticism in the corridors of most Russell Group universities (the group which represents most of the research intensive higher education institutions in the UK). If the Conservatives win the next election, they may wither on the vine.

The Conservatives are not enamoured of the more academic diplomas, to be introduced in 2013 and covering science, humanities and languages. They also want to separate out academic and vocational qualifications in exam performance league tables. At first sight this may seem logical but think about whether vocational success will capture the imagination of prospective parents and employers if that were to be the case.

It goes without saying (although no-one is saying it any more) that the best way to improve the content of the curriculum in what are now GCSE years would be to return to the recommendations of the Tomlinson inquiry into exam reform. In it, Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, recommended an overarching diploma embracing both academic and vocational qualifications - which would not have seen the abolition of GCSEs and A-levels as Tony Blair feared. It would, however, give pupils a grounding for whichever path they planned to pursue post-16 (be it academic or an apprenticeship). Both the Conservatives and Labour should ponder on this.

Meanwhile, it is welcome news that the abolition of coursework (initially only in maths) has seen boys improving their performance and achieving better results than girls. Exam results should not be a battle of the sexes but the predictions are that boys will draw level again once coursework is reduced in all subjects – as will happen from next year. We do not want to get into the invidious position where the gender gap see-saws every time an exam is changed.

The approach by Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who recommends a mixture of approaches on assessment and wants trained examiners in every school to get the best out of all pupils, deserves to be examined. Ed Balls' Department for Children, Schools and Families took a cautious line on the impact of the maths results yesterday. It said it would be monitoring the situation to assess the impact of change. Not a politician's headline, thank goodness, but the right approach to yesterday's news.