When I started thinking about writing on this subject some while ago I had not dreamed that the spectre of reintroducing O levels was about to be raised. Nevertheless, amid all the debate around current proposals for qualifications reform two particular contributions have caught my eye.
First, John Cridland, the director-general of the CBI, went on record about GCSEs, saying that they encourage teaching to the test and do not deliver the key skills needed in the workplace. He also warned that the qualification is preventing teachers from providing an "inspirational classroom experience".
To be clear, this was not yet another attack on the teaching profession from an ill-informed businessman complaining about the literacy levels of the shelf-stackers they employ. Rather, pleasingly, the CBI has decided to put education high on its agenda and has recently set up a project to establish what business can do to help our education system improve.
The Department for Education response was that reforms to GCSEs will address the CBI's concerns, but the questions he raises are far more fundamental than the changes to examinations that ministers are considering.
Second, the Welsh government has launched a review of 14-19 qualifications with some thought-provoking ideas, including challenging the very idea of GCSEs and suggesting that a whole new structure of qualifications could be developed there. Everyone involved with this brave review is aware of the enormous risks of relinquishing the well-known brand of the GCSE - which is why these questions are framed as genuine consultation in the context of long-term planning.
In contrast, in England the National Curriculum Review has been focusing on specific and detailed changes to the content of the curriculum - without addressing the big questions about the purpose of a national curriculum in the current policy context. In the same way, we are now witnessing hastily implemented changes to examination specifications before a more fundamental discussion has taken place.
This, then, is key. We need to take a fundamental and wide-ranging view of qualifications at 16, not incremental, hasty, bit-by-bit decisions and certainly not a return to an outdated, two-tier system that condemns thousands of young people to a second-rate qualification like the deservedly extinct CSE.
Since GCSEs were introduced in 1986, four of the so-called pass grades have lost all currency, and coursework has been discredited and replaced by a cumbersome system of controlled assessment that makes excessive demands on teaching time. The GCSE has become one of a hotchpotch of qualifications that perplexes employers. It is no wonder some independent schools have replaced it with alternatives, but that only adds to the confusion. Meanwhile, teachers have been condemned to a treadmill of GCSE changes for the next three years with no scheme of work in place for more than one year and now the prospect of further changes even before these have been implemented. It is incredibly difficult for schools to plan coherently in the context of so many unresolved issues.
There is no doubt that our examination system needs fundamental reform and that we need to raise our game in an ever more challenging global market. However, the barrier appears to be the uniquely British obsession with external assessment to the exclusion of almost any degree of trust in the teaching profession. This has created a costly and unwieldy burden that is leading to all kinds of unintended consequences.
Examinations are an effective tool for assessing pupils' knowledge and understanding but we have to recognise that they can never do more than sample aspects of a course. Our approach to assessment has to be reformed and there is a compelling case for an independent review to consider this. Here are some of the questions we need to ask:
- What can we realistically expect examinations for 16-year-olds to assess?
- What is the purpose of an examination for 16-year-olds when the participation age is being raised to 18?
- Why do we continue to rely so heavily on external examinations when other countries, including those performing highly, do not? What can we learn from those countries?
- How can we ensure that the crucial skills employers need are seen as key outcomes for every young person?
- How can we help young people leave education with a set of skills that meets the needs of a rapidly changing employment market and prepares them to engage in lifelong learning?
- Are there aspects of assessment that would be better conducted by appropriately trained teachers than through exams?
In considering these questions we must not fall into the familiar trap of starting with our accountability system. To maintain a system just because it is a useful tool for measuring school performance is wrong, especially if we decide that GCSEs are no longer the right qualification for pupils.
As our starting point we must look at the outcomes we want for young people at the end of compulsory education. Once we have got the curriculum and assessment right we can revisit the accountability measures, placing them where they rightly belong - namely at the end of the education process.
I would not presume to know all the answers to these questions but I am certain that the GCSE in its current form - even after the proposed revisions - will not be enough on its own to make our high ambitions for education a reality. What I do know is that getting this right is of vital importance for the health of our economy and the well-being of our society in general.
Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.