Leading article: Not enough just to scrap GCSEs


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The Independent Online

Not content with introducing free schools, shaking up A-levels and revamping the entire curriculum, the indefatigable Education Secretary has now set his sights on GCSEs. He has some good ideas, and some that need more thought.

Of the latest batch of typically radical proposals, there are two that stand out. The first is a structural issue. In future, Mr Gove wants there to be just one exam per subject, provided by a single board. Absolutely right. The current system is a nonsense, with a plethora of boards competing for schools' business and the incentives stacked towards an erosion of standards.

The second, more controversial suggestion is that GCSEs be abandoned altogether. Instead, says Mr Gove, there should be a choice between a more difficult, O-level-type exam and an easier option for the less able. The aim is a laudable one: there is, indeed, a need for more rigour in secondary education, and GCSEs have, without question, been devalued by rampant grade inflation and ever-easier questions. But there is also a real danger that returning to a two-tier exam system will entrench social divisions and relegate the non-academic to the educational scrapheap at the age of just 14.

Mr Gove responded to such concerns with characteristic brio yesterday. The key, he claims, is to foster a new culture of aspiration in schools and pupils alike. And he cites the example of Singapore, where four out of five children opt for the trickier of the two qualifications on offer. All well and good. But there will still be plenty of children who take the lesser, CSE-style test, even if they are only a minority.

There is an answer. In order for less academic pupils not to be abandoned by the system, more effort must go into providing high-quality vocational training. There has been progress, with the recent expansion of the University Technical College scheme. But even a near-doubling of the number of UTCs is still a long way from providing a genuine, nationwide alternative.

Mr Gove's plans to overhaul GCSEs may yet come to nothing, but he still deserves applause as a politician not afraid to tackle his brief head on. He must take on the gaps in Britain's technical education with similar gusto.