Top academic calls for GCSEs at 14

He says they have lost their role as school-leavers' exams

Warwick Mansell

Pupils should take GCSEs at the age of 14 as part of a radical overhaul of secondary schools, one of Britain's most prominent education academics has said.

Alan Smithers, director of Buckingham University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, argues that the current system was designed as a school-leaving exam and is therefore now outdated.

He said that the current move to extend compulsory education to 18 means there is now a need for a Year 9 assessment that would give a "clear shape to the final years of schooling".

The results of a new slimmed-down GCSE would help pupils to decide whether to move on to academic or vocational courses.

Speaking at a conference earlier this month, Professor Smithers said England is "deficient" in not having a clear cut-off point between lower and upper secondary education.

He told The TES that in all but three of the 30 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) there is a compulsory curriculum at lower-secondary stage and then another for upper-secondary pupils, starting at either 14 or 16, in which students specialise.

Professor Smithers said there was a failure to see the period of study for 14-19s after the end of compulsory main curriculum at key stage 3 as a single, distinct phase because it is broken in the middle by GCSEs.

This was one of the main problems facing initiatives such as the Diploma qualification and the Government's new university technical schools, he said.

Professor Smithers told the Inside Government conference on assessment reform: "We are deficient in not having a clear set of pathways in upper-secondary education, and not being particularly clear about when upper-secondary education begins.

"We could adapt GCSEs as a basis for choosing a (curriculum) pathway, even if it means moving it to 14.

"It would be better to move it to 14 as that's when the (main) national curriculum ends, when young people are looking at different pathways and are developing different technical skills."

Professor Smithers' comments will revive a debate which has heard calls for the GCSE to be abolished or downgraded because it no longer marks the end of most pupils' education (see box).

In November, Education Secretary Michael Gove is due to publish a white paper which includes sections on exam and curriculum reform, but it is thought unlikely that radical change of the type proposed by Professor Smithers is on the cards.

The academic also called for major revisions to school inspection, with serving teachers carrying out most visits rather than professional inspectors. Inspections, rather than test and exam scores, should become the main accountability measure for teachers and schools.


Reform has form

Professor Smithers is not the first to call for a rethink of GCSEs.

Back in 2001, the Labour government published a white paper implying that the GCSE might move to a role as simply a "progress check" during 14-19 education.

That year, Professor David Hargreaves (pictured), then chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said that this would be recognition that GCSEs had ceased to be a leaving certificate for most students.

However, the debate shifted after 2004, when the Tomlinson review proposed absorbing GCSEs and A-levels in an overarching diploma.

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Warwick Mansell

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