Gove’s exam reforms will confront wasted potential in British schools

OUR EXAM system should be up there with the best in the world. It should push bright kids and be renowned for its academic rigour. At the moment, GCSEs simply don’t do that. Every year, GCSE results day is accompanied by accusations of “dumbing down” and respect for them is diminishing among employers and universities, as they increasingly fail to stand up to international comparison.

That’s why we should be reforming our examination system. Anything that increases rigour has to be welcomed. Changes should be aimed at ensuring that education values excellence, stretches pupils and produces people able to compete in a skills driven, competitive global economy.

We don’t know the full details of the changes proposed by Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, but it’s clear that reform is needed. Changes can’t be about a nostalgia for a golden age of O-levels that never was. They should be about creating a system fit for the twenty-first century.

But there’s more to the proposed reforms than a reversion to O-levels. One of the main problems with the current system is that it lets down pupils who would prefer to go down a more vocational route. Pupils who are not necessarily strong academically have become disengaged from education at an early age. We’ve spent the past few decades ignoring the need for vocational skills and trying to push too many people down an academic cul de sac. Not everybody wants to go to university, but we’ve spent years looking down our noses at vocational skills, with damaging consequences for the economy.

At the moment, too many pupils become disinterested and end up gaining only a handful of low-grade GCSEs. This doesn’t help them in the world of work; it dents their sense of self-worth and means that their final two years of education have been effectively wasted.

Estimates of the number of young people who become disengaged range from 11 to 33 per cent. The Woolf Report suggests that 20 per cent of young people perform so badly in their exams at 16 that they are unable to proceed into further education. The present system isn’t working. It’s a waste of human potential.

It’s important that the government gets these reforms right, so we don’t miss another opportunity. The government should make sure that every pupil leaves school with a decent qualification and a broad awareness of English, maths and science. Vocational qualifications should not be regarded as second class. Instead, vocational courses should be seen as an alternative route, with as much validity as the academic route. It should be an enabler of social mobility.

This represents a chance to put academic and vocational education on an equal footing. A reformed system provides us with a chance of removing the snobbishness around vocational education from our pre-16 education system and widen the opportunities for those young people who are disinterested by academic education.

A reformed system could give some young people a good grounding in English, maths and science, while also enabling them to concentrate on more vocational subjects. This will help re-engage with the many disengaged pupils and teach them the skills to play an active and important role in the workforce. It should also be accompanied by links with local employers, involvement in apprenticeship schemes and, in the longer term, further qualifications in partnership with further education colleges and universities.

The present system effectively gives up on some young people at the age of 14, while a reformed system could give disengaged young people the opportunity to develop and flourish. International evidence has shown that providing vocational options for some young people can boost their confidence, enhance their engagement at school and improve their readiness for the work place.

In short, providing a vocational option at the age of 14 would be good for some of the UK’s young people, good for the education system and good for the economy as a whole. Reform is necessary because the present system is letting too many young people down, while holding the economy back.

David Skelton is deputy director of the think tank Policy Exchange. You can follow him on Twitter @djskeltonext