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GCSEs: 6 reasons why Robert Halfon is wrong

We need more young people to progress onto post-16 study – but throwing GCSEs is not the way to do it, says Leora Cruddas

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Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, has launched a blueprint for qualifications reform and recommended that GCSEs and A levels be scrapped. 

Here’s why I think he is wrong.

1. A good-quality general education to age 16 is an entitlement

It is in my view absolutely correct that good, academic liberal education is the entitlement of every child to age 16. This is the age that it is about right for young people to specialise and for curriculum diversification. 

It is unhelpful, disrespectful even, to the young people at key stage 4 who are studying hard for Mr Halfon to suggest GCSEs are “pointless”.

2. It is not compulsory in England for young people to remain in education until age 18

Legislation passed some years ago under ‘raising the participation age’ policy makes it a requirement for all young people to stay in some form of education, employment or training until age 18. However, there is still no statutory requirement for young people to remain in compulsory education until the age of 18. So, if there is no qualification at age 16, some young people would leave statutory schooling and go into employment without any form of qualification.

We could of course legislate, but given the legislative time available in a congested parliament, I would suggest there are other priorities for education legislation, namely the national funding formula.

3. The proposal is impractical

In England, the school estate is mostly 11-to-16 education. While some schools have sixth forms, not all do. Mr Halfon’s proposal would require large-scale and very expensive changes to the school estate.

4. We need a period of stability to implement previous reforms

Teachers and leaders have asked for a period of stability in qualification reform. We do not need further upheaval to the qualifications system at a period when we are still implementing the previous reforms.

5. Automation is important but will not necessarily be addressed through more vocational qualifications

Mr Halfon is right to say that we need to pay greater attention to automation. But it does not follow that a mixed assortment of academic and vocational programmes will solve the problems that automation may bring. Automation is as yet imperfectly understood. 

It is unhelpfully populist to talk about the "march of the robots". We do need to consider the impact of automation, but in a calm and evidence-informed way.

6. The proposal relies on the tired knowledge-skills debate

The evidence is now very compelling that the application of "skills" is in fact domain-specific. Curriculum pathways devoid of strong knowledge requirements lead nowhere.

Employers are now looking for young people with a level 3 or 4 qualification. This is not a reason to remove GCSEs, which remain the bedrock for diversification in curriculum and qualifications at age 16. A rigorous academic curriculum to age 16 is the best building block for success post-16 at levels 3 and 4.

Employers also say that they are looking for a set of "employability skills" (as yet still very vague and undefined). In reality, employers continue to use qualifications as a threshold to employment.

It is not "either/or" but "both/and". Of course we need ever more young people to progress to post-16 study. But throwing out GCSEs and a good academic grounding is simply not the way to do it.

Ultimately the purpose of education is human flourishing and the common good. Education both preserves and provides for change. Employability is one important end, but our education system should not be in the service only of employment and skills. 

Leora Cruddas is Chief Executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST). She tweets @LeoraCruddas

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