Trade in for a new model
Nick Tate's questioning of the worth of GCSE (TES, June 27) is welcome. Nearly 10 years ago Peter Mortimore, director of London's Institute of Education, and I called for the abolition of 16-plus exams in a pamphlet for the Education Reform Group. My recent British Curriculum Foundation pamphlet, A Curriculum Beyond the Bell Curve (TES, April 25), repeats the message.
Rethinking our current commitment to a school-leaving examination for 16-year-olds, as the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority suggests, would free us up to consider a whole range of different possibilities (see letter, page 24). We remain the only country in Europe with such an extensive and complex examining system at 16.
As a result, most British secondary schools spend more per student on exam fees than they spend on books or resources for the whole of the two-year GCSE period. Year 11 teaching ceases in March - even earlier in some schools - just to administer the exam. British students, at a crucial period in their development, forgo nearly half a year's teaching. The impact, however, extends beyond Year 11. Thousands of teachers are taken off their normal classes to supervise orals and practicals and to participate in moderation exercises.
Equally significant is the enormous amount of hidden wastage in the system. The figures are not easily available, but overall I calculated a few years ago that up to a third of all subject GCSE courses begun in Year 10 have been dropped some time before the mid-point of Year 11. In some schools the figures are much higher. The impact on motivation is devastating as anyone can see in the bored faces of "not entered" 15 and 16-year-olds up and down the country.
The critique, I believe, is irresistible - but there is need for caution. First, GCSE is contributing much of value to the teaching of many subjects. The assessment of investigative and practical work and the new approaches to oral and aural testing will leave a lasting influence.
The argument is for the abolition of the highly expensive, bureaucratic paraphernalia of GCSE, not of the teaching and learning strategies it has fostered. Teachers who have given so much to develop GCSE, often on a voluntary basis, should feel vindicated and not diminished by the proposal.
Second, it is important that the debate is steered away from the sort of "defend at all costs" battle lines that have bedevilled A-level reform. A fraction of the resources currently devolved to GCSE could be used to provide some external monitoring at 16 to ensure that standards are being maintained.
Creating the space for another four or five months' real teaching, much evidence suggests, would represent a tremendous opportunity to raise standards. And giving more responsibility to schools (as every other European country does) for interim judgments through credit systems would be a much-needed boost to teacher morale.
Third, such a move would open up the possibilities for restructuring the curriculum post-14. The 16-plus sits like a fault line across any creative ideas for developing a more inclusive model of curriculum.
If the wastage rates within the curriculum pre-16 are high, after the age of 16 they escalate to the point of international embarrassment. We need a core curriculum for this age group, and the next couple of years provide an opportunity to debate what form it should take.
We also need diversity, and high-status vocational courses must come into this. Something must be done to stimulatethe millions of young people like those who told a recent National Foundation for Educational Research survey that they liked school (more than 90 per cent) but found most lessons boring (more than 50 per cent).
This will mean revisiting some of the discarded Technical and Vocational Education Initiative ideas, utilising the opportunities that new technologies now provide and developing a coherent qualification that all our students can aspire to.
It will need to be an inclusive, not dual, system. The way the French have used the high-status baccalaureat title for a wide range of international academic and vocational programmes provides one model.
The stakes on this are high and many vested interests will seek to obscure simple messages. Nick Tate's thinking aloud on GCSE and the helpful delay of the fiddly and inconclusive A and AS reforms, recently imposed by Labour's Tessa Blackstone, begin to clear the ground for what could be one of the most exciting and hopeful developments for a very long time.
Bob Moon is professor of education at the Open University
Letters, page 24