Editorial: Rigour shouldn't be a roadblock to reform

9th January 2015 at 00:00

Rigour, for all its strengths, has become the bogeyman in education. It's difficult to argue against: if you're not being tough then you must be soft, and no one, especially in power, wants to be seen that way.

Back in 1986 it was invoked by Sir Keith Joseph, then education secretary, to persuade prime minister Margaret Thatcher that replacing O-levels with GCSEs would not lower standards as she feared, but would in fact inject "more rigour" into the system.

More recently, the word was almost synonymous with former education secretary Michael Gove, whose reforms to introduce "more rigorous content" and "increase the rigour of qualifications" are now painfully under way.

Against this backdrop, it's a brave man who calls for A-levels to be replaced. Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and a former Department for Education permanent secretary, wants a baccalaureate system of core specialist subjects supplemented with extended project work, numeracy, literacy, computer science and "softer, non-cognitive skills". He says A-levels are out of date and believes a broader, more rounded education would better prepare students for their future careers.

Sir David is not the only one advocating a baccalaureate-style leaving certificate - the Royal Society and the Headteachers' Roundtable, an informal grouping of school leaders, are also in favour. And in TES this week, Martin Robinson argues that scrapping A-levels and GCSEs would liberate both teachers and students. Ensuring "more breadth through a baccalaureate-type exam" would not only test for knowledge but also "recognise other contributions to education for life - voluntary work, creative work, collaborative work", he writes.

Calling for the abolition of exams appears to be de rigueur, with employers' organisation the CBI proposing shortly after Christmas that GCSEs be scrapped and replaced with "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".

With the proliferation of testing in the English education system, the removal of any exams surely has merit. Nevertheless, Sir David's proposal in particular is an excellent one. It would be a much-needed overhaul of a system that serves next to no one well and would provide a unified framework of academic and vocational qualifications that looks to the future, not to the past.

Standing in its way is rigour. The Tomlinson review would have given us this solution 10 years ago but it failed, because a new ministerial team in the run-up to an election was worried it would be perceived as weak on standards. Tomlinson's predecessor too - the Higginson report, which recommended broadening A-levels from three to five subjects - was ditched by Mrs Thatcher, who would not countenance any tinkering with the so-called gold standard.

Schools have already survived the rigours of a harsh year of relentless and turbulent change. If this latest call to reform 14-19 education fails to find favour, it won't be because it's wrong but because sadly - like Tomlinson - it's being delivered at the wrong time.



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