There is no need any more for a school leaving age exam at 16

GCSEs do not correspond to the needs of either students or employers in the digital age

Lord (Kenneth) Baker Former Secretary of State for Education, 1986-9

Is a test or examination necessary when students leave education?  The answer to that is “Yes” because it is an indication to a future employer of their employability.  The reason GCSEs, O-Levels and their predecessor, The School Certificate which I took in the 1950s, became so important and necessary arose from the fact that the school leaving age at the end of the war was 16-years of age and 93% of students then left to find employment, with only 7% going on to Further and Higher Education.  As schooling today stretches from 4-18-years, there is no need to establish a test at 16 because the numbers are now reversed with 93% staying on for Further and Higher Education, and only 7% leaving. 

GCSEs are out of touch and costly

The whole English education system is now centred on GCSEs and the present curriculum is a list of 8 academic subjects – Progress 8 – which cannot claim to be a broad and balanced curriculum for it does not correspond to the needs of either students or employers in this digital age.  

An examination system which is as extensive as GCSEs is costly. The cost for each 16-year-old is around £550 which includes the direct entry costs in the region of £400 and £150 per student for the exam officer’s salary and invigilator costs.  So, for 200 students the cost will be £110,000.  On top of this, there could be the cost of appeals.

Learning from other countries

As GCSEs are so important not just for the student, but also for the reputation of the school, most of the summer term is not taken up with new learning material, but devoted to revision, and revision, and revision. 

Other countries have very different ways of charting students’ progress. Data from PISA show that tests at the age of 16 in 8 academic subjects are rare.  Most tests at 15/16 years are also accompanied by coursework and teacher assessments and in almost all cases there is some assessment of technical and vocational study.  Some countries have no tests at 16 at all including Finland, New Zealand, Canada/Ontario, Shanghai/China, and the United States.

The need for a broader, more expansive education

David Goodhart, in his new book, Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, argues for an education system starting with primary schools teaching technical and digital subjects which continue in secondary schools with technical training available for the 30-40% of students who would prefer and benefit from that pathway, instead of a purely academic regime.  Goodhart also says, “In our robotic future, a broad education that includes plenty of music, sport, dance, drama and art is more necessary than ever.”  The numbers of students taking GCSEs in those subjects have dropped dramatically since 2010.

I believe that what is needed is a test and assessment of a pupil’s abilities and aptitudes at the age of 13/14 so all young people can find the right pathway – some an academic route, others a technical or a creative pathway of study.  We have found in the UTC movement that 14-year olds are quite capable of deciding where their interests lie. 

The three education pathways should lead at 18 to an Academic Bacc, a TechBacc or a Creative Bacc.  All of which could be a combination of exams, casework and teacher assessment.   

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