government announced yesterday that GCSEs will not be scrapped. The good news is that the exams will be significantly reformed, reflecting the need to raise standards for every pupil while pushing the most able. And it’s not before time. Having taken GCSEs myself, I remember how repetitive and boring they were. Filled with multiple choice questions, or the opportunity to provide at most a six-line answer mentioning “key words”, it often felt like the exams were simply going through the motions.
GCSEs need a radical overhaul. Over the past decade, pass rates have risen exponentially. Even shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg admits that “there is grade inflation in the system”. But while GCSE results have reached record levels, this achievement has not been matched in international league tables.
According to international comparisons by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), between 2000 and 2009, 15 year-olds in England fell from seventh in the world to twenty-fifth in reading, from eighth to twenty-eighth in maths, and from fourth to sixteenth in science. A yawning gap has opened up between the image of educational success, and the reality of what is taking place across the world.
And business leaders have been complaining for over a decade that GCSEs aren’t up to scratch, particularly in teaching the basic skills required for the workplace. Dr Adam Marshall of the British Chamber of Commerce recently stated that “too many new employees have lacked basic skills and required remedial training for inadequate literacy and numeracy”. Public confidence in GCSEs also remains low. According to a YouGov poll taken in June 2012, 60 per cent think it has got easier to get a good GCSE in recent years. And it’s not just the public and parents who have little confidence in the current system. A recent survey showed just 51 per cent of students in 2011 had confidence in the GCSE exam system.
The most significant problem is that the uptake of core subjects – maths, English, the three sciences, history, geography and modern languages – has slumped. In 1997, 50 per cent of pupils were entered into five or more of these subjects This figure had more than halved by 2010, with only 22 per cent of pupils sitting these subjects.
By contrast, the think tank Reform found that “of the ten leading developed countries, eight require examinations in at least four academic subjects”. If we do not ensure that pupils are taking the core qualifications that provide a broad base for the skills and knowledge that are needed in the modern world, Britain will fall further behind when it comes to jobs and investment.
We are in a global race, in which the qualifications of the twentieth century will no longer equip us with the necessary skills and knowledge needed for the modern world. This means that we need to emulate the countries that are powering ahead, teaching the subjects that matter, backed up by a rigorous education system that will not accept second best.
Chris Skidmore is Conservative MP for Kingswood, and a member of the Education Select Committee.