AS ANOTHER bumper harvest of GCSEs is brought in there are signs that the purpose and future of the exam marking the end of compulsory schooling is being reconsidered. David Blunkett called this week for more pupils to take theirs earlier than at the end of Year 11. This is not the only - or necessarily the best - way of stretching those ready for higher achievement. But the suggestion does indicate that GCSE is now seen as just an educational milestone rather than the end of the road. If all are to be encouraged to stay on beyond 16, the idea that GCSE is the terminal school-leavers' exam must be squelched.
Meanwhile Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters' Conference, and John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, are reported to have called for its abolition on the grounds that it is outdated, holds some students back and costs too much. All this follows research showing that in England and Wales teenagers take more tests and exams than in any other European country without any obvious benefits.
There may indeed be better ways of spending the pound;90 million consumed by GCSE. It is inconceivable that compulsory schooling should end without some form of assessment, if only to provide guidance on what learning should follow. But if that was all that was required, teacher assessments would suffice.
In reality, of course, pupils' GCSE results serve rather more purposes than this. They act as a proxy measure for the efficiency of their schooling and provide university selectors with their best available predictor of applicants' future A-level and degree performance. The moves mooted for later post A-level selection, however, could make GCSEs much less important, especially if job recruitment at 16 virtually ceases. There could be mixed feelings within the profession about the abolition of 16-plus public examinations.
Ending the GCSE treadmill and its consequent league tables might seem superficially attractive. But removing a major academic motivator for pupils in Years 10 and 11 could pose different sorts of classroom problems. It could also mean children had no experience of public exams until 18. Pupils were originally supposed to "by-pass" the old O-levels in the subjects they were expected to take at A-level. In practice, they rarely did.