GCSEs – are they broken and should we fix them?

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Since their introduction in 1988, the number of young people achieving five GCSE A* to Cs including English and maths has risen from 35 per cent to 58.3 per cent (2010/11). Today, we have seen pass rates fall for the first time in the exam's history.

Although employers will be disappointed at the fall in GCSE pass rates today, businesses may find that grades are now more reflective of the ability of those taking the exams as previous pass rate increases have not always translated into attainment levels seen by businesses and have led to suggestions of grade inflation.

Report after report reveals that employers are still finding that school leavers lack the numeracy and literacy skills they require as well as employability and communication skills. It is evidence such as that has, until now, fuelled the debate about whether GCSEs are actually becoming easier and to the suspicion of grade inflation.

GCSE grades do act as a useful benchmark to employers. In manufacturing attainment in maths, English and the sciences is key, with many companies requiring A* to C grades in these subjects in order to begin an apprenticeship within their company for example. Yet many manufacturers still feel the need to conduct their own English and maths test during the recruitment process, suggesting a mistrust of formal qualifications. If GCSEs are intended to represent a certain level of achievement of a young person, then why do so many employers carry out their own assessments? The answer seems to be that experience has told employers that relying on a GCSE grade alone does not guarantee that the potential employee has the ability to meet their own demands.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has hinted at a radical overhaul of examinations at secondary schools, with leaked documents suggesting that a return to O-level/CSE style may be on the cards. Critics have argued that such reforms may result in a two-tier system, with those considered less academic taking CSE-type exams and those more capable taking O-levels, and that this will be lead to early streaming to the disadvantage of those who develop later.

Such a structure could run the risk of those taking the ‘easier' exams being pushed down a vocational route, such as apprenticeships, upon completing Key Stage 4, with those taking the ‘harder' exams headings towards a more academic route. This could be seen as a real blow to manufacturing as the industry has strived to improve the status and role of vocational qualifications as an alternative of equal status to further education and stressed the numerous opportunities that stem from completing an apprenticeship, for example progression to a degree.

That it is not to say that we should reject all proposals for reform. What manufacturers and engineers need is more rigorous examinations and not an education system based on league tables, together with a stronger focus on higher achievement levels in key subjects such as maths, English and single sciences. Proposed reforms that would achieve this are worth exploring. There may be lessons which the UK can learn from its major competitors, where for example the study of mathematics is compulsory beyond the age of 16 and the excuse, “I can't do maths” is not accepted by teachers or employers.

We also know that tougher targets will be introduced in a bid to drive up standards, with schools facing being closed down if they do not achieve a 40 per cent target of pupils with five good (A* to C including English and maths) GCSEs – up from the previous target of 35 per cent – with Gove wanting the target to reach 50 per cent by 2015. Whilst the aim of such targets may be to increase performance, we must not let the debate of its effectiveness distract from what it is of upmost importance – improving the skills and attainment levels of our young people, who are the next generation of workers. They will find the world of work increasingly competitive as rapidly growing economies invest heavily in their children's education. If this is not our main focus then we will increasingly fall behind our international competitors in a world where our global competitiveness will increasingly depend on a highly skilled and productive workforce.

We expect Gove to launch a public consultation on GCSE reform in the autumn. In the meantime, if today's results have sparked a debate between yourself and a colleague, peer, friend or family member about which were/are easier O-levels or GCSEs, then why not test out both for yourself here.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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