The wrong debate about the wrong exams: The argument over GCSEs misses the point, says John Rae. The real problem is that by A-level the school system still aims to produce officers and other ranks

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The Independent Online
THE DEBATE about whether so many children deserve to have done well in their GCSE exams illustrates what is wrong with British education. We spend so much time arguing about whether standards have risen or fallen that we fail to consider the connection between our education system and Britain's competitive position in the world.

This week's arguing continues the struggle between progressives and traditionalists that has carried on for 30 years. As soon as a good set of exam results is published the progressives claim schools are doing better, while the traditionalists reply that exams have been made easier. Both claims are irrelevant. What matters is how successful we are at producing a well-educated population.

In the mid-19th century it was still possible to have a thriving economy with a relatively uneducated workforce. In the 21st century (when today's GCSE candidates will be in the workforce), the countries that prosper will be those with not just well-educated elites, but a high level of education across the population.

Unlike the Japanese and the Koreans, or closer to home, the Germans and the French, the British have an education system designed to produce an elite. If we are to change this state of affairs, we must not allow the progressives and traditionalists - most of whom are now over the hill, but not, alas, far away - to dictate the agenda. If we want to evaluate GCSE, the right yardstick is the performance of the same age- group in competitor countries. Such a comparison is not possible in all subjects, but it has, for instance, been made in mathematics - and it shows that our pupils compare unfavourably with those in most developed countries.

We might note in passing that if there is a close connection between the education system and economic prosperity - as I am sure there is - the good old days of grammar schools coincided with Britain's long economic decline.

So in place of the present futile controversy, we should ask one question: what is it in our education system that inhibits the development of a well-educated population? The fundamental problem is our unwillingness to believe that most children are worth giving a good education to. 'England isn't always going to be divided into officers and other ranks,' says Mr Chips's young wife in James Hilton's school story. How wrong she was. Our schools are geared to produce officers and other ranks. Officers stay on to take A-levels and go to university; other ranks leave at 16 and swell an uneducated workforce.

It is not just class that holds Britain back - it is the incestuous relationship between class and education. Any step that encourages more pupils to stay in full- time education beyond 16 is worth considering. GCSE was designed to achieve exactly that. Instead of two exams at 16 - O-level and CSE (officers and other ranks again) - GCSE is one exam open to all abilities. If it gives more pupils the confidence and motivation to continue their studies past 16 it will have done its job. Of course some traditionalists don't like it. Their unspoken assumption is that not every Tom, Dick or Harry should become an officer.

But the biggest barrier to producing a well-educated population is the A-level. Why the champions of A-level cannot get it into their thick heads that the exam guarantees low standards, not high standards, is beyond me. The system guarantees that most pupils leave school under-educated at 16, and that those who do not leave specialise in a way more appropriate to studying at university.

We need to abolish A-levels and replace them with an exam that is broader, and accessible to a wider ability range. It does not matter if that means our brightest children do not reach such high standards as they now attain in their A-level specialist subjects. It is more important to the country that a greater proportion of the age-group is well-educated than for a few clever youngsters to start university two years early. That is the context in which the anxieties about GCSE standards should be placed.

The author was headmaster of Westminster School, 1970 to 1986.