'Our students are over-tested. We need a new system, and that includes ending GCSEs at 16'

30th December 2014 at 11:00

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:

The call from CBI director general John Cridland for GCSEs to be scrapped has attracted a predictable response. Comments added to some online national newspapers articles about his New Year speech range from vitriolic attacks on the teaching profession to assertions that GCSEs have failed, that policymakers know better than employers and that the coalition government’s reforms of GCSEs are the only answer. All of these miss the point.

The fact of the matter is that qualifications are not the same as achievement, and testing is not the same as teaching. Examinations are one form of assessment which, when designed properly, can sample aspects of a course and test the level of mastery of that specific content. What they cannot do is any more than that. It is high time that policymakers understood this.

British students are among the most tested in the world. In just about every school in the country, they spend countless hours completing examination scripts, which are then dispatched (at great expense) to be externally marked. Much of this is driven by an accountability system that cannot cope with outcomes which cannot be expressed on a spreadsheet or league table.

Meanwhile, employers continue to maintain, quite understandably, that they need young people to leave compulsory education with far more than that which an examination can assess. To use the CBI’s own words, they need young people who are "grounded and rounded" – who have been provided with a broad and balanced education that combines a rich core of knowledge with an equally rich range of skills and qualities that will equip them for adult life. That does not mean that education is just about preparation for employment – that would be a gross misunderstanding of what employers are saying.

There is no significant disagreement about this in the education profession. All good schools aspire to provide their students with a broad range of experiences. They understand the value of enabling students to experience opportunities that go far beyond those that can be tested in the examination hall. This is not about bolting on something called "character", but about embedding these aspects into a planned set of educational experiences. We have a desperate shortage of people with high level technical skills and are still making far too little progress in ensuring that those elements of the curriculum that are described as "vocational" are not seen as second best for students who are not suited to a traditional academic diet. Equally, our accountability system needs to recognise that schools must be far more than exam factories.

Unlike what the headlines are suggesting, John Cridland’s proposals do not advocate the immediate abolition of GCSE but they do call for a planned approach to the curriculum, which builds on a strong core developed at primary school, leading to much more flexible and broad programmes at secondary level. Like many school and college leaders, he worries about those young people who will be left behind and recognises the fact that education no longer ends at 16.

During recent years, there has been a sea change as employers commit to work with school and college leaders. As we approach the final countdown to the general election, we have an unprecedented opportunity for politicians to step back and allow leading educationalists and employers to work with them to put in place the kind of evolutionary approach John Cridland has boldly advocated.

Related stories:

Scrap GCSEs, says CBI – 29 December, 2014

Wolf's Got Talent, but until the GCSE is binned the curriculum will lack coherence  12 March, 2011

'Scrap GCSEs' call – 12 May, 2008



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