The GCSE is failing those who depend on it. It must be reformed

The past 24 hours have produced conclusive proof that the days of the GCSE as a national exam for all 16-year-olds should be numbered. As Graham Able, the headmaster of Dulwich College, south London, pointed out yesterday, the UK no longer has a need for a mass examination for all 16-year-olds if most of them are staying on in some form of education and training. His comments were supported by David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who called for an end to the examination.

However, if the Government does have the courage to scrap the exam, it would need to replace it with some kind of certificate for the dwindling band of youngsters who do still leave full-time education at 16. They need a certificate to show employers what they have achieved during their 11 years of compulsory schooling. Yesterday's results showed that the GCSE is palpably failing to do that. Ironically, they revealed a rise in top-grade passes by the very youngsters that some headteachers are saying should be able to skip the exam so they can move more swiftly on to A- and AS-level studies. The overall pass rate declined, though, leaving the UK with the prospect of growing numbers of 16-year-olds - in the words of the Prince's Trust - falling prey to a life of crime, drugs and homelessness as they fail to find jobs.

The recipe to resolve this situation lies with the committee of inquiry into 14-to-19 education chaired by Mike Tomlinson, a former chief schools inspector. In a progress report on the inquiry's thinking last month, he outlined the case for a downgraded type of GCSE which would fulfil the very function that employers want of the exam. It would fit in with his baccalaureate-style diploma, which would have a common core curriculum to be taken by all youngsters from the age of 14. It would include "the basics", numeracy, literacy and information technology skills.

In addition to the Tomlinson inquiry, the Government's encouragement to schools to allow more 14- to 16-year-olds to experience the world of work - either by going out on work experience for up to two days a week or by studying at a further education college for a more vocationally oriented qualification - should also help to satisfy the needs of this age group and possibly stimulate them for the rest of their learning in school by making education seem more appropriate for them. The advantage of the latter is that there is no barrier to swift progress. The numbers opting for this kind of education is growing.

Both Mr Tomlinson and Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, have been sounding notes of caution about how swiftly we can move towards the new diploma approach - if it is to be adopted. We are in for a long haul over a 10-year period, they say. Mr Tomlinson is not due to deliver his final report until next summer. The 10-year haul may be necessary before the entire package is up and running, but yesterday showed that some elements of it are more urgent than others.

In order to ensure the next generation are better equipped to take advantage of the world of employment (and also to ensure they are spared the over-assessment of the past few years), it may be necessary to move full steam ahead with parts of the package. In a BBC radio interview yesterday, Mr Clarke acknowledged that the Government could be considered to have failed if there is not a big rise in numeracy and literacy standards in five years. That is, therefore, the timescale he needs to be working towards to deliver reform of the GCSE.

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