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A relic of old distinctions

THE first signs that Labour is about to turn its attention to the establishment of a new, all-important 14-19 phase of education emerge in this week's manifesto. More pupils will be encouraged to embark on work-related courses from the age of 14, and more will take GCSEs at a similar stage. Heads will also have greater freedom to disapply the national curriculum for some pupils.

For years, teachers and academics have argued that the present break at 16 is both illogical and harmful. As the number of young people deciding to stay on in education or training has grown, it has become even more unfortunate. Britain is alone among European countries in setting a high-profile public examination for 16-year-olds. This is a relic from the days when most pupils left school for work at that age in the belief that their education had finished for ever.

The present secondary school examination arrangements involve a curious discontinuity. Ever since GCSE was introduced more than a decade ago, teachers have complained that students arrive in the sixth-form or college ill-prepared fo A-level. The introduction of key skills post-16 has added further absurdities. What is the point in waiting until the age of 16 to teach skills that we consider to be "key", and that may be even more valuable to the minority who leave at 16 than to those who remain?

To achieve continuity in the final phase of secondary schooling the next government will need to overhaul the examination system. New GCSE courses which begin this autumn will include more modular examinations and make it easier for students to build up a portfolio of vocational and academic qualifications between the ages of 14 and 16. Even more modular GCSE exams and different forms of assessment will be needed if pupils are to move easily into the now wholly-modular A-levels.

Devon's decision, which we report this week, to set up a new 14-19 school is a pointer to the future. Young people and their parents must be persuaded that the days of a school-leaving age at 16 are over. People should expect to leave school or college at 18 or 19 and continue their education for the rest of their lives.

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