One way to get pupils motivated - abolish the GCSE examination

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The Independent Online

It is time to cut out the appendix of GCSEs. They are a vestige from the days when most children left school at 16 and a tiny minority stayed on to do A-levels.

It is time to cut out the appendix of GCSEs. They are a vestige from the days when most children left school at 16 and a tiny minority stayed on to do A-levels.

Most children do not need to take public exams at this point in their education. The target set by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, over the next decade is for half of all pupils to go on to university. What matters to them is A-levels. Yet GCSEs, just like the O-levels they replaced, remain heavily skewed in their relevance to precisely the same, more academic, half of the age-group.

Of course, exams at 16 are valuable preparation for A-levels. They enable bright pupils to be stretched in a wide range of subjects before the narrow specialisation of sixth-form life. But they need not be national public exams - internal school exams could be just as good and often better.

The problem with GCSEs is that they act as a roadblock on the path to higher staying-on rates. The message is that once you are through, you are free to go. That runs directly counter to the message of the Government's advertising campaign, "Don't Quit Now", which is trying to persuade 16-year-olds to stay on at school.

One thing that would really help to keep them in full-time education would be to abolish GCSEs and focus attention on acquiring qualifications more likely to improve employability at 18.

GCSEs offer little for the least able. Grades below C tend to be ignored by employers, while 6 per cent of pupils still leave school without a single exam pass. GCSEs in maths and English are sometimes used as an entry qualification for vocational training, and occasionally by employers, but what is really needed is to promote awareness of the "certificate of achievement", which records basic skills in spelling, punctuation and adding-up. New kinds of vocational courses are needed - as Mr Blunkett readily acknowledges - and the Government is working on them. But its efforts are constantly hampered by the focus on GCSEs.

When The Independent called for the abolition of GCSEs last year, Mr Blunkett argued that their "accessibility and motivational impact" had contributed a great deal to the rise in staying-on rates at 16. We are not convinced. Other comparable countries - France, Germany, the United States - do not have major public exams at age 16.

What will persuade young people to stay on in education is the perception, as Mr Blunkett's advertising proclaims, that "things are about to get interesting". But GCSEs are most likely to turn off precisely the target group by loading them up with academic tests at the critical juncture.

There is nothing wrong with the principle of exams and tests. The common criticism of Mr Blunkett for over-testing the nation's poor, stressed-out schoolchildren is misplaced. However, GCSEs are the most glaring example of tests whose rationale is faulty.

Congratulations are due to all those pupils and teachers who have worked so hard to secure better GCSE results this year than ever. But the time has come to take a radical look at how children might best deploy their energies between the ages of 14 and 16 in future. If GCSEs did not exist, it is hard to believe that rational policy-makers would devise a remotely similar system.