'Scrapping GCSEs would advantage only the privileged'

We must rebuff the calls to scrap GCSEs and A levels, says Mark Lehain – they ensure every child gets a broad and balanced education until 16

Mark Lehain

Mark Lehain, GCSEs, A levels, exams, scrap GCSEs and A levels, Robert Halfon

Along with greying hair and creaking knees, another sign of advancing years is seeing things you thought were long gone make a comeback. And while I don’t really mind Britpop on the radio, Friends on TV, or Tony Blair in our politics, I have felt a bit queasy this week seeing the old “scrap GCSEs and A-levels and teach kids stuff employers want” proposal pushed once again by the same old suspects.

I may not fully understand the paradigm of ageing, but – having founded and run a school – I’m comfortable that I know a little bit about education. I also remember the 2004 Tomlinson review, which proposed much of what has been regurgitated this week. They were bad ideas then and were rightly rejected. Much like Nigel Farage, they keep attempting another comeback, so let’s remind ourselves again why they should be rebuffed once more.

Proponents of these ideas believe that a knowledge-rich education is of less value than in the past and that schools should develop skills and traits that employers want. I reject the idea that education is about preparing people for corporate life; its purpose is to enable children to be the author of their own lives.

They argue that because young people now stay in education until 18, GCSEs no longer have the purpose they once had. This just flags up the privileged perches from which such things are said.

Huge numbers of students leave school at 16 and go into employment with training, or study elsewhere, and GCSEs are a respected and recognised qualification that mark the end of one stage of education and open doors to the next. Scrapping GCSEs would give a huge advantage to already-privileged children, widening the already far-too-big opportunities gap.

Having a broad range of qualifications awarded at 16 means that more students experience a rich and balanced curriculum until this age. Every child can be immersed in the best that’s been thought, said, and done, and have ample opportunity to develop interests alongside and beyond this.

We’re only just now emerging from times where no, and then narrow, accountability measures led to a restricted curriculum diet. Those suggesting that schools would continue to deliver meaningful and broad education without some external measures are betraying their severe ahistoricism.

I believe in keeping the curriculum as broad as possible for as long as possible to ensure that children have as many options open to them as possible. These proposals, like grammar schools, would categorise children at too young an age. The current system gives most children a rigorous core academic education until age 16, and, after that, they can pursue what they please; the wonder missed and doors closed through premature choices would be incalculable.

And let’s be quite clear here: ultimately what would happen would be disadvantaged pupils being disproportionately shunted towards the ‘vocational’ streams while better-off children receive the full academic education that every child is entitled to. Instead of giving all children a broad, knowledge-rich education, these proposals would fail to give children the opportunities they deserve.

Finishing your GCSEs and starting an apprenticeship, or taking a vocational course, or doing A levels, or whatever – these are all great routes. The problem comes when that choice is made too young, or made for you, and scrapping GCSEs and watering down the curriculum would do just this.

GCSEs taken in Year 11 are a mark of achievement at that point in a child’s life. They don’t recognise every aspect of learning, but nor should they try to – it is neither possible nor desirable for us to try and measure everything that matters in education, just as it isn’t in life generally.

But to suggest scrapping a valued, recognised currency of academic learning would be a retrograde step and one that damages most those who benefit from it now. Like prog rock or mullet haircuts, I hope that this is another attempted revival that flops.

Mark Lehain is the director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence and former founder and headteacher of Bedford Free School. 

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Mark Lehain

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