I’ve looked at the education practices of a wide range of countries – not all have external exams, but almost all have high-stakes assessment at age 16. Countries as diverse as Singapore and Turkey have formal exams that support student decisions about the next stage of education. In those with no exams and high-stakes school-based assessment, there are frequent and heartfelt concerns about bias and a lack of fairness.
In England, ensuring that the majority of the cohort reaches a high standard in a broad and balanced curriculum by the age of 16 allows for more intensive specialisation in the upper secondary phase (age 16-19). This in turn feeds into intensive, high-quality, short-duration first degree programmes in higher education – typically of three years duration, not the four years often found in countries that have more general and less intensive 16-18 education.
In the current economic circumstances – with considerable pressure on public expenditure in respect of higher education – a shift to four-year degrees would have significant negative consequences. These would include more debt for families and individuals, increased pressure on state expenditure, increased pressure on resources in higher education institutes, withdrawal of young labour from the labour market for a further year during a period of rapid demographic shifts, all leading to a reduction in the attractiveness of UK universities to foreign students and governments.
There are powerful reasons, by virtue of structural purpose and curriculum entitlement, to retain GCSEs at 16. Likewise, there are powerful reasons, both structurally and in terms of international comparisons, to retain A-levels. It’s simply false logic, and inconsistent with international evidence, to assume that sorting out the vocational route requires changes to A-levels, and that the serious tensions in our education system – many invoked by accountability systems – will be resolved by removing GCSEs.
Let’s look at genuine remedies to the real problems rather than irrational "displacement activity" directed at A-levels and GCSEs.
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