Scrap GCSEs, says CBI

GCSEs should be abolished and education reformed to help young people to fulfil their potential, a top employers' organisation has claimed. 

John Cridland, director general of the CBI, argued this morning that although the country’s young people are “streetwise and impressive”, the education system “doesn’t always serve them well”. 

He used his new year message to recommend a radical revamp of the exam system.

“We need to get the basics right first time in primary school and then provide a personal menu of tailored learning plans for all 14- to 18-year-olds offering high-quality academic and vocational A-levels, and encouraging young people to mix and match, depending on what's right for them,” he said.

“This will involve the eventual abolition of GCSEs at 16, as peak level testing would then take place when students are 18. By boosting skills, we will see productivity rise – along with earnings.” 

As the percentage of pupils staying on in school beyond 16 has climbed, the role of the GCSE as a school leaving certificate has fallen, leading to calls for the qualification to be scrapped altogether.

But at a Westminster Education Forum event this month, Tim Oates, group director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment, described such views as “loose talk”.

He argued that taking a wide selection of GCSEs allowed the depth of study that pupils could benefit from at A-level.

This week it was revealed that Margaret Thatcher voiced severe doubts about the introduction of GCSEs to replace the old system of O-levels and CSEs in the 1980s.

The Conservative prime minister warned they would lead to a lowering of standards in schools, according to official files newly released by the National Archives. They include a briefing note from 1986 drawn up for Mrs Thatcher by her officials ahead of a meeting with Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph.

It states: "You are concerned that the new approach will lead to lower standards [and] a shift away from the traditional approach to learning in favour of a 'can't fail' mentality."

But Sir Keith wrote to her to insist that "contrary to your fears" the new exams would inject "more rigour" into the system. He suggested to the prime minister that she was in danger of "misleading yourself".

"I am quite certain that the new examination is more and potentially very much more stretching than the O-levels and CSEs it replaces," he wrote.

This week, a Department for Education spokesman said: “Our plan for education is designed to help every student, regardless of background, develop the knowledge, skills and values to prepare them for life in modern Britain.

“That’s why we are reforming GCSEs and A-levels to be robust and rigorous, to match the best education systems in the world and to keep pace with universities’ and employers’ demands.

“We have also introduced gold-standard technical and vocational qualifications, ensuring our young people can choose from a wide range of academic and vocational courses.  At post 16 employers are involved in the delivery of vocational courses, ensuring they prepare young people for the world of work.”

Related stories:

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

'Scrap GCSEs' call – 6 January, 1995


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