Are GCSEs broken? And what about the rest?
A while ago, the FT’s education correspondent, Chris Cook, wrote a piece for the FTdata blog throwing up some interesting numbers about the percentage chances of students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into Oxford.
The article seems to suggest that a significant portion of the problem with changing the intake to Oxford and other high-ranking British universities lies with schools ensuring that disadvantaged students with the right grades actually apply to top institutions. But even if they did apply, the odds of them getting in were still lower than other students.
Now, we could just assume bias on the part of the university and leave it at that, but that seems rather cheap and also an unsatisfying answer to the problem.
What it might suggest is that the training to pass GCSEs that we provide in English state schools isn’t working: or rather, that it is working to get kids the grades, but it isn’t providing them with the wider skills and outlook necessary to benefit from their enhanced academic outcomes.
So, poor children with good grades are being twice disadvantaged, by their background and then by how they were taught to achieve good grades.
But given the recent furore over O-levels, and with the raising of the education participation age upon us, perhaps it is time to consider that GCSEs are broken for all school leavers: the limited pedagogy they permit is holding back students, not just from Oxford’s high tables, but all manner of post-school options.
Because it is not just universities who are unhappy with GCSEs: the point has been made again and again that young people are finding it increasingly difficult to make their way into employment because they are seen by employers to lack the necessary ‘spark’ or work ethic, capacity for team working, ability to lead when required and other so-called ‘soft skills’, which might more clearly be called ‘employability skills’ or perhaps ‘life skills’.
It’s wrong to think that employers don’t rate young people highly, but they find them poorly prepared because they often lack work experience and a broader range of real life experiences that amount to relevant preparation.
This is borne out by the CBI’s recent survey asking what employers need from education. Employers want to see primary schools concentrating on the key enabling skills of numeracy, writing and reading but move to the 14-19 age group and 71% believe schools and colleges should be prioritising development of employability skills.
The conclusion seems to be that students are being sold short by the education system: we tell them that GCSEs are massively important, they work hard for them and then they aren’t getting their due at university level or in the job market.
The solution to this is by no means straightforward: Labour created and maintained the 5 A*-C GCSE target, later adding the requirement of English and Maths, in order to ensure the schools were getting better at the basics; checking by this measure the London Challenge made an astonishing impact on the quality of the capital’s schools, and overall Labour’s policies really did increase social mobility.
But if the tactics used to generate those improvements are, in many cases, now militating against students getting into work or university, then clearly simply re-creating O-levels with an ever-tighter focus solely on terminal exams isn’t the answer.
This clearly doesn’t mean we should abandon assessment or lose the focus on ensuring high levels of literacy and numeracy amongst school leavers, but it does suggest it is time to return to the question of 14-19 qualifications, with an eye both on competency in reading, writing and mathematics but also in those skills required to get a high-level university place, a job or both.
Stephen Twigg has recently admitted that not taking forward the Tomlinson proposals for 14-19 qualification reform was a major mistake by Labour in office – that is a brave and hopeful move in the direction of Labour giving a new, stronger offer to school leavers, their parents, university and employers.
In addition to being prepared to think more creatively about the 14-19 offer, we need to think about the system in which the curriculum is set and the current incentives that surround it.
Schools complain that the new ‘Key Performance Indicators’ of OFSTED are pulling them away from delivering the skills framework that employers demand and attending to the realities of their local economies.
And while the government has now devolved responsibility for careers advice to schools and started a national all-age careers service, the infrastructure to connect schools and employers together is fractured and confusing, as local authorities play less of a role and organisations like education business partnerships fall away due to a lack of funding.
At a time when the single most important issue facing us is youth unemployment, the systems to help young people transition from education to employment are simply not up to speed.
So, as Mr Clegg and Mr Gove look set to square up to each other over curriculum reforms, we predict a messy fight that leaves the objectives of improved education, greater social mobility and economic recovery disconnected – and ever more confused than before.