After nearly 100 years of tinkering with qualifications we're back to where we started, writes Donald Hirsch
For over half a century, education ministers have been promising to abolish the sharp divide between those who succeed and fail at 16: the "sheep and goats" of our education system. Optimists believed that the Tomlinson report would finally bring this about. The white paper's rejection of fundamental change to the qualifications system not only shirks a historic opportunity to move forward in this direction, but in a sense takes us back to where we started.
Between 1918 and 1950, the "gold standard" of secondary education was the Schools Certificate, gained by a small minority of 16-year-olds who passed exams in at least five subjects including English, a foreign language and either mathematics or science. The introduction of O-levels in 1951 was supposed to make the system more flexible and to widen the numbers getting some sort of qualification. Yet, in practice, five O-level passes, including English, continued to be recognised as the basic mark of success.
Nor did this recognised standard disappear when GCSEs supposedly abolished the pass-fail divide from 1988: we simply started talking about five grade Cs or above, again as an equivalent of what came before.
Now the white paper has announced that those getting five A*-C grades, including English and maths, will get more formal recognition for this achievement with a "general (GCSE) diploma". This is a return to the Schools Certificate in all but name.
Of course, today this qualification will have a different meaning, in a vastly changed educational landscape, than it had in 1950. The alternative to gaining it is certainly not complete educational failure.
The various proposed vocationally-orientated diplomas are in themselves commendable, and students receiving them will deserve the recognition of achievement that these qualifications award.
But what does it say to employers, students and parents when at the same time as announcing an alternative means of certifying success, the Government re-asserts the link between traditional qualifications and educational excellence? The white paper puts emphasis on ensuring that league tables give even greater prominence to the number getting five GCSEs, by saying that these must now include English and maths and that these subjects will be examined more rigorously. This is an odd technique for producing parity of esteem. The retention of a 16-plus qualification, essentially making the same divisions as a qualification invented in 1918, makes us laughably at odds with other European countries, who have long since abolished or downgraded qualifications at 16 where they had them.
This makes sense when most people are staying in education at least to 18, making the concept of a "leaver's certificate" before that age redundant.
Even though everywhere there remain status distinctions between academic and vocational streams in practice, these are not typically as pronounced in other countries as in the UK during the final years of secondary education. Without the distortion of our stark sheep-and-goats division at 16, a range of educational options at upper secondary level is able to develop along more of a continuum. This makes it easier for each student to find a suitable pathway to suit their preferences and abilities, without the fear of being labelled second-rate because of a failure to pass an academic hurdle in Year 11.
One of the most important changes since 1950 is the huge increase in the number of "sheep" compared to "goats" in our system: over half now get five GCSEs at A*-C, compared to the small minority gaining the Schools Certificate. Unfortunately the emergence of a larger, well-educated middle class makes the lack of esteemed qualifications for those left behind the more damaging.
In international terms, the UK stands out as having one of the highest proportions of young people going to university, but also one of the highest leaving education before age 17. Other countries are much better at keeping the mass of children in education until the end of secondary school, leaving with something positive to show for it.
Next year it will be 75 years since Ramsay MacDonald took us off the real gold standard because, far from upholding British quality, it was proving inflexible and doing our country more harm than good. What a pity that ministers do not have the courage to celebrate that anniversary by abandoning the educational equivalent.
Donald Hirsch is an international consultant on education policy