A commission looking at the "forgotten third" of pupils who fail to achieve at least a grade 4 "standard pass" in GCSE English and maths has questioned whether the English language qualification is fit for purpose.
It also questions whether students should continue to have to resit English and maths GCSEs post-16, as required by government – given that the rate achieving the standard pass in these circumstances is low.
The Commission of Enquiry into the Forgotten Third, set up by the Association of School and College Leaders and chaired by educationalist Roy Blatchford, has published an interim report today at the union’s annual conference in Birmingham.
Quick read: Forgotten third in all school types
Quick read: Heads launch inquiry
Analysis: Our children are more than grades
Mr Blatchford said: “We are not trying to undermine the value of the current English language qualification for the many young people who do well in this exam and who deserve great credit. Our question is whether it is really an examination of written and spoken English skills or an extension of English literature.
GCSE English: 'We need to give every pupil a chance'
"Do we need a qualification which instead gives every pupil a chance to demonstrate that they are able to speak and write English to a degree of competency valued by employers – something which every pupil can be proud of at the end of 12 years of schooling?"
English language was reformed in 2015 and the conditions set out by Ofqual require exam boards to assess students on unseen texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. These must include a literary fiction text and a literary non-fiction text.
The commission is concerned that this is not an assessment of everyday skills and competency in written and spoken English and that many young people are missing out on the opportunity to gain a qualification that demonstrates those skills.
The commission suggests instead introducing a National Certificate of Competence.
The interim report states that there is a "serious lack of understanding" from employers about what is actually being tested in GCSE English language.
"Is there an argument for replacing GCSE English language with some kind of national certificate which values the achievements in speaking, listening, reading and writing of all 16-year-olds, at the conclusion of their 12 years of compulsory schooling?” it states.
It also adds that there is “strong emerging evidence" that compulsory resits in GCSE English (and mathematics) are not working.
Mr Blatchford added: “It cannot be right that in the current exam system we have so many young people leaving secondary school each year without qualifications in English and maths at a level which is seen as a passport to onward study and employment, and that the way the exam system works means that one third of children will always fall below this bar.”
The commission will publish its final report in June.
It follows a report published yesterday which says that the "forgotten third" of pupils who do not achieve at least grade 4 in English language can be found “throughout the system, in all types of schools from 'outstanding' to 'inadequate'”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have reformed GCSEs to equip pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to prepare for their future. These new, gold standard GCSEs are regulated by the independent qualifications regulator, Ofqual, to ensure their rigour and quality.
"As with the content of other new GCSEs, the English language GCSE was designed in consultation with a range of experts, including subject specialists, teachers, representatives from Ofsted.
“To support teachers and provide stability as these improved qualifications bed in, the education secretary has committed that there would be no further changes to the national curriculum and no more reform of GCSEs beyond changes already announced for the rest of this Parliament.”