Michael Gove’s decision to scrap GCSEs in favour of a Baccalaureate Certificate has done little to diminish the government’s obsession with external assessment. Obviously, the Education Secretary had to do something. GCSEs have become discredited and no longer represent any value to universities or employers. It may, therefore, appear sensible to replace a system that is not fit for purpose with a more rigorous regime. But is it sensible? Given that most children now leave school at 18, it may be that external exams at age 16 no longer serve any purpose anyway.
O-levels were abolished 25 years ago because they focused on essay writing and memory tests, skills that did not adequately meet the diverse needs of the modern workplace. They were replaced with the current system of continuous controlled assessment. Unfortunately, the constraints of a prescriptive national curriculum have led young students down narrow alleyways, so the perceived shortcomings of the old ‘traditional’ O-level regime have not really been addressed.
If today’s world requires flexibility, creativity, initiative, specialist knowledge, analytical and interpersonal skills, it behoves our education system to reflect this. Continuous assessment and the constant churning of modular exams undermine qualities like initiative and creativity in teachers, preventing them from adopting a more holistic and flexible approach, not least because it makes excessive demands on their time. Some would go further. They would argue that teachers are not trusted to teach and that we have a tick-box education system that stifles the ability (of both teachers and pupils) to criticise, analyse and think. It’s important to have accountability, but a culture of over-regulation and micromanagement has throttled the profession.
Outlining his plans for the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), Mr Gove promises the new exam will be a foundation not only for further study but also for vocational learning or apprenticeships. It’s not clear exactly how this will be achieved, but if it proves to be the case, that, at least, would be a redeeming feature. Technical and vocational education has been neglected for far too long in this country.
Rather than jump straight from one exam system to another, it might be an opportune moment for the government to launch a wide-ranging review of our secondary education system, reappraising it in its entirety in the context of 21st century society. Options like greater focus on vocational training and scrapping exams at age 16 should not be off the table. Actually, nothing should be off the table.