Times article: Why fuss over exams at 16? No one else doesSeptember 21st, 2012
This article first appeared in The Times
In all the discussion of the launch of the Government’s English Baccalaureate Certificate, the most obvious question has not been asked: why do we have exams at 16?
The truth, as Michael Gove’s ill-advised and short-lived dalliance before the summer with a return to a divided system of O levels and CSEs reminded us, is that public exams at 16 date back to an era in which that was the school leaving age. When I was at school in the early 1980s, “Easter leavers” were the people who didn’t do any exams at all. O levels and CSEs were “terminal exams” for too many of my peers.
Today, however, we are moving to a time when all students will have to stay in education or training until they are 18. And anyone who has A levels or other “level 3” qualifications will know that no one is much interested in your GCSEs once you move beyond them. So we should not just be debating coursework versus end-of-course exams. We should ask what is the role of public tests and qualifications in a modern education system.
The vast majority of education systems don’t have a GCSE exam or equivalent for 15 to 16-year-olds. The reason is simple. They focus instead on participation and progression up to the age of 18 — and high school “graduation”. In these countries the norm is to be learning up to 17-18. Surprise, surprise, more pupils stay on at school and this helps improve their performance.
In England, GCSEs represent the first of three years of manic over-testing as youngsters proceed to AS and then A2 exams if they stay at school or college, or an undervalued mix of vocational qualifications if not. The National Education Trust calculates that over a pupil’s final three school years of education in England those on the academic track spend about a year doing exams, revising for exams, or taking a breather after exams. No wonder the young people I teach once a fortnight at my old comprehensive seem weary of the treadmill.
In addition, the cost of externally marked written exams (not just GCSEs, but A levels too) is substantial, running to well over £600 million. I asked a head teacher in my constituency for the figure for his school: it was nearly £200,000, and that was without a sixth form. In the age of austerity some of this money could be much better spent teaching young people rather than testing them.
The counterargument is that seven years (from 11 to 18) without a qualification would leave teachers (and parents) without a useful means to motivate young people, especially boys. And if the exams were abolished, more young people would leave school with nothing. So there has to be a middle way.
All the evidence is that English and maths are absolutely key qualifications up to 16 and beyond. The previous Government amended school league tables to require that the five-GCSE goal should include these two subjects. The coalition supports this too.
So we could keep externally marked English and maths papers, but move to school-based assessment in other subjects. There will be the usual outburst that teachers cannot be trusted. But it is time to presume competence (and honesty) and hold it to account. The new standards for school leadership established by the National College (“Sandhurst for heads”) and the accountability systems that now exist, including Ofsted, convince me that these fears are overblown.
The aim would be to make the age of 15-16 seem much more like a staging post than a destination. I would do away with the fallow time of “study leave” before GCSEs, which interrupts an important year of learning and puts too many pupils without supportive home environments at a disadvantage.
A decade ago I had the idea that testing at 14 would establish a rigorous midway point in secondary education and allow the creation of a proper high-status exam system for all young people from 14-19. But tests for 14-year-olds blew up in a marking scandal and there was a faltering response in 2005 to the recommendations of the Tomlinson Commission for a unified system of qualifications from 14-19.
The raising of the leaving age needs to be driven by higher-quality options — whether apprenticeships, vocational study, mixed academic and vocational study, or for stretching those on the A-level track. Instead we still talk of “staying on”, rather than the appropriately more pejorative “dropping out”.
The problems with GCSE are more fundamental than Mr Gove acknowledged. The world’s best school systems don’t mess around with the details of exams at 16. Their testing is designed to recognise and motivate achievement. None will be copying the English Baccalaureate. We should be aiming higher too.
David Miliband is Labour MP for South Shields, and was Minister for School Standards 2002-2004