New ‘grammar school’ GCSEs can only short change young people – we need a general diploma for everyone

There are few surprises in the new GCSE exams that have now been officially unveiled by Ofqual. Coursework and modules – as well as the chance to resit parts of exams – have continually been cited by Michael Gove as reasons for the ‘dumbing down’ of standards, with the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching, the 2012 consultation document Reforming Key Stage 4 and now Tuesday’s Commons statement by the Secretary of State effectively holding the exam system responsible for the UK economy’s ‘failure to compete’ with Pacific Rim countries!

This is either deluded, disingenuous or dishonest; for Gove must know that promising a ‘grammar school education for all’ is a contradiction in terms since only a minority can pass by definition. However, anyone who points this out is derided as ‘an enemy of promise’ or an academic ‘blob’ with no faith in the ability of all pupils to pass academic examinations specifically designed to fail most of them.

Teachers especially must be sick of hearing all this, bewildered but also increasingly resigned to having to prepare students to jump through a new set of hoops, recognising that for many of their students this has been made deliberately more difficult. Young people themselves, particularly those who are currently completing their GCSEs, will feel insulted and belittled that exams they have worked so hard for have effectively been declared unfit for purpose, as employment opportunities continue to disappear and £9000 a year university courses become essential for even ‘ordinary’ jobs.

Our book The Great Reversal has outlined the real reasons behind Gove’s exam offensive–the need to create a closer correspondence between education and an economy that has not provided the opportunities promised. Whereas in periods of relative economic prosperity and labour market expansion, all children can be encouraged to succeed, in a downturn, the opposite has to apply. Also, in seeking to revert to a minority higher education by reducing the numbers going to university via the specialist academic A-levels the GCSEs will link to, the Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, urgently needs to reduce the huge debts owed by students paying higher fees.

Instead, we need new policies in the interests of all young people. While these must go much further than the forlorn attempt at reforming education to restart social mobility and pretending we can educate our way out of recession, it is important that we put forward bold alternatives to the current GCSE changes. A ‘general diploma for everyone’ should be accessed by all to provide a mandatory entitlement to a range of learning and then progression to further, higher and adult continuing education and training.

Bringing together current academic and vocational qualifications could be a start to this process, although it would have to be the diploma as a whole that would be the main achievement. With the raising of the participation age to 18 in 2015 (17 this year), such a diploma, awarded at 18, with an intermediate level at 16, could also represent a stage in the transition to adulthood being linked to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. We don’t need a new sheep and goats test at 16 to impress the majority with a sense of their own failure.

These are dismal times for education – to reclaim the agenda, we need new ideas.

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