This year’s GCSE results have been met with (deserved) criticism over the new grading system, the changes to assessment and the emphasis that continues to be placed on ‘high status’ Ebacc subjects at the expense of others. All of these have resulted in further pressure and anxiety for the ‘exam generation’ – yet discussion about whether extensive assessment at age 16 is still necessary and if it isn’t, then what should take place instead, has been largely absent.
In the late 1980s, GCSEs established themselves as the main leaving exam, ending the division between academic GCE O-levels and non-academic CSEs. GCSEs, unlike the O-levels had much greater input from teachers (reflecting the more general influence that educational professionals still had over policy) and a much fairer method of assessment – many practitioners were pleased they drew on the pedagogy of CSE rather than the GCE. Now, forty years later, following Michael Gove’s reforms they resemble the O-level.
Critiquing the current format and trying to ’reclaim’ GCSE is essential, but it’s also important to question whether in times when the school leaving age is now effectively 18, it’s necessary for young people to jump through a set of hoops at 16. It’s true that many that students do ‘leave’ their existing schools at the end of KS4, partly reflecting the antiquated system of provision in this country, but also the increasingly selective nature of post-16 education where more and more students are not able to enter their own school sixth forms -but few 16-year olds enter the labour market or start apprenticeships.
Like the SATs, GCSEs are primarily used to rank schools and as a result, large numbers of people in the education sector have a career or business interest in maintaining the status quo. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be assessment at 16 – it’s just that that we don’t need this type.
The Guardian (Editorial February 20th) has now joined the attack on University Technology Colleges* correctly arguing that directing ‘non-academic’ students’ onto a vocational curriculum at 14 – what it terms ‘backdoor selection’ – is wrong.
Some five years after Alison Wolf’s review had slammed many qualifications for being ‘worthless’ in the labour market, the paper likens the low status of vocational education, compared with academic learning, to the old grammar and secondary modern divide and calls for specialisation to be delayed until 16. This is now what the government intends as it seeks to rebuild what the paper describes as a ‘beleaguered’ vocational system through its Post-16 Skills Plan.
Redrawing the line of divide at 16 through the creation of a new technical route has led to alarm bells about the dilapidated state of the further education sector and the need for a major injection of funding. Nobody would dispute this, but what can be disputed is whether we need a vocational pathway at all? Employers have never taken it seriously and have continued to select recruits on performance in academic subjects, while significant numbers of young people with vocational qualifications continue to use them as alternative routes into higher education rather than to develop employment skills. With major changes in the occupational structure, particularly the collapse of ‘middling’ and technician level employment it’s even more questionable whether these sorts of qualifications are required.
Instead, surely young people need a good general education? Current academic qualifications do not provide this and it’s these that need to be reformed, rather than vocational courses. But the nature and basis of academic learning is rarely challenged, not least because most of those concerned with education policy and curriculum development have benefitted from the status and security that it has provided for them. Academics and educational professionals are very good at designing and redesigning vocational courses for other people’s children but are reluctant to visit their own back yard.