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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
What should we do with the GCSE?
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

It is 15 years since the first batch of GCSE students were told their results.

Classroom
GCSEs are aimed at too broad an ability range, some heads say

The exam - in those days a controversial innovation - replaced O-levels and CSEs, a system which divided 16 year olds into two tiers according to their ability.

The one-size-fits-all GCSE, sat by around 600,000 pupils last year, has come under attack from all sides recently. This shining hope of a fairer education system is seen by many as dated.

Some critics say it is too easy, failing the brightest students.

Others want to get rid of all central assessment at 16, arguing that most people go onto further education of some sort and should only be tested after that, perhaps at 18 or 19.

The less able, others say, are unable to cope with the demands of passing GCSEs, leaving them vulnerable in the job market. Why not just give them basic skills, such as reading and numeracy, then provide decent training in a trade or skill?

Too 'general'?

The GCSE - the General Certificate of Secondary Education - is, by virtue of its popularity, all things to all - or at least most - children.

Graham Able, head teacher of the independent Dulwich College in south London, which has academic results far above the national average, wants something more stretching for his pupils.

He said: "The GCSE is an exam that has served an important purpose, but its time has come.

"We now have a large percentage of the population staying in education beyond 16. There is little justification in doing an exam at an age when most people are not leaving school."

Mr Able's desire is for a restructuring of 14 to 19 education, aimed more specifically at the end product.

GCSEs don't look like they are going, and I'm certainly not planning to get rid of them
Edward Gould, head teacher

He said: "I would prefer it if we got the flexibility to devote three years to advanced study. Pupils could do six or seven subjects from 15 to 17 and then specialise in three for a further year.

"We could also spend more time on activities outside the classroom, rather than having constant assessment.

"At the top end, the GCSE is not stretching the pupils. There needs to be some kind of change."

But what about those who struggle with GCSEs or have no interest in academic achievements?

Janet Lewis, head teacher of Sandringham School, a comprehensive in St Albans, Hertfordshire, said: "As a nation, we need to be looking at how we are recognising the achievements of all young people at 16 and encouraging them to go into further education.

Alternatives

"When GCSEs were introduced, we were told anything above a grade G was a pass. But parents and employers quickly came to see only C and above as a pass.

"We have to address the issue of education from 14 to 19 as a whole. Most 16 year olds are too young to go into employment and need some form of further education.

"We need to look at alternative pathways."

An inquiry into education from 14 to 19 by the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, has suggested a single diploma system for the age group.

It is uncertain what this would mean for the GCSE. Will it become a part-way progress assessment or an in-house exam largely run by schools themselves?

Edward Gould, head of Marlborough College, an independent school in Wiltshire, said: "There is a need for an exam at the 16 stage. It is important to see how individuals are getting on.

Vocational subjects

"We need a system consisting of general education, but also with the flexibility to allow brighter pupils to get ahead and slower learners to go along at their own pace.

"We also need to pay more attention to vocational education.

"I don't believe it's going to be helpful for GCSEs to drift along to take in more students.

"We need more vocational and occupational courses, but these should not carry a stigma or be seen as less worthy than GCSEs.

"There must be a hard core of general education, such as English and maths skills.

"There should also be a range of harder academic subjects, such as physics, Latin or chemistry, for the brighter pupils.

"There are definite questions to be addressed about what the exams are for, but GCSEs don't look like they are going, and I'm certainly not planning to get rid of them."

Relevance

Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University calculates that there were about 30,000 more A* and A grades this year and about 19,000 more U grades - failures.

He says that on the one hand, GCSEs did not appear to be stretching the more able, hence the crops of 12 or 13 top grades.

Schools should work with parents to use the flexibility inherent in the system - which a baccalaureate did not have - to move students on to the next phase of qualifications early, if they were up to it.

On the other hand, better vocational qualifications - which genuinely "qualified" people to do something - should be developed.

In this, businesses could help, not least by offering a premium for people with the right qualifications.

"They need to put their shoulder to the wheel and say, these are what we really want, these people will be snapped up by our organisation and we will pay more for them," he said.




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