Only half marks for Mr Gove

 

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After years of ever-improving grades, the Education Secretary's plan to scrap the widely discredited GCSE in favour of a more academically rigorous replacement is a laudable one. That Michael Gove's original idea of returning to a two-tier O-Level/CSE-style system has been ditched is also welcome. Instead, GCSEs will be superseded, from 2017, by a single exam with no modules or coursework.

So far, so good. But while Mr Gove's (albeit reluctant) eschewing of a new-look CSE may have dodged the most obvious row over social divisiveness, the question about what happens to those not up to the more demanding test has still not been answered. Indeed, the suggestion that only 10 per cent of entrants will be awarded the top grade only adds to the sense that policymakers' attention is focused more on those at the top than at the bottom, even if it does make sense in the context of the recent furore over this year's GCSE marks.

Meanwhile, one of Mr Gove's predecessors has a more radical proposal. Lord Baker claims that, rather than reforming GCSEs, they should simply be scrapped altogether. As all children must now remain in training or education until 18, there is no need for an exam at 16, he says. Better to replace it with an aptitude test at 14, to establish where a child's talents lie and allow their education to be shaped accordingly.

As an active backer of University Technical Colleges – which take children at 14 and focus on technical skills such as engineering, Lord Baker always merits a hearing. Here, he is half-right. A system for determining a child's natural propensities, as part of efforts to reform our one-size-fits-all education system, has much to recommend it. But so long as one day's training per week for 16-to-18-year olds is enough to satisfy the rules, scrapping the universal qualification at 16 is premature. And so far there are plans for only 34 UTCs nationwide.

The issue of those with neither the academic ability for a tougher exam, nor the aptitude (or lucky location) for a technical alternative, therefore remains unresolved. Until Mr Gove bends his considerable energies to this question, he is only halfway there.

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