September 25, 2012

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The GCSE fiasco over the summer was an example of an all too familiar ‘we know best’ attitude from some politicians and government officials. 

The goalposts were moved part way through the year putting thousands of young people at a disadvantage. 
 
Those young people who took their GCSE English exams in June were effectively marked down compared to those who took exams in January. 
 
Exam boards were told to change the grade boundary as too many young people were going to achieve a grade C in English according to the exam regulator, Ofqual. Meanwhile, the Tory secretary of state for Education, Michael Gove had been telling everyone that exam results had improved too fast. 
 
He denies telling the exam boards or the regulator to change the rules but he has made such a fuss about the issue that the exam regulator is bound to have taken note of what he said. 
 
Of course this is not just of academic interest. 
 
Young people who are graded D are overlooked by employers and do not qualify for apprenticeships or places on courses at colleges or universities. As a result, their prospects are severely limited compared to those graded C or above. 
 
People with a grade C or above are far more likely to have well paid jobs, decent housing and a better standard of living. Those who achieve a grade C or better have better health and are also more likely to have successful and stable relationships throughout their lives. 
 
If a government minister has intervened as it appears he has, then this is at potentially a great cost to the life chances of many thousands of young people. 
 
The same Michael Gove has announced a change away from GCSEs which may cover up the fiasco from this year’s results. He now wants to scrap the GCSEs and go back to a narrow, academic qualification called the English Baccalaureate or EBACC. This will encourage students to pass exams in English, maths, science and either history or geography all of which are of course very important.
 
But hold on, this is going to be done through a final exam with little or no room for coursework. This sounds suspiciously like a return to the ‘O’ Levels and CSE exams which the Thatcher government abolished 20 years ago because they were not working. 
 
As I said in the House of Commons, this new qualification will help the few who are good at a final exam at the expense of the many who excel in other ways. 
 
Many young people are very capable but not at exams. In the harsh real world, people do not sit exams, they use practical skills. Good basic English and maths, literacy and numeracy are the skills that are needed. 
 
I said what Gove has done is an example of the ‘we know best culture’. Michael Gove has not asked employers what exam and qualification system they think is needed to help them identify the best potential recruits. Instead, he has gone back to an old and discredited system out of dogma. 
 
He should have tried to improve the current GCSE system and addressed undoubted weaknesses there. 
 
Many employers tell me that the current system is a poor predictor of whether someone has basic literacy and numeracy which will help them at work. What we should do is design a school and qualification system which meets the needs of young people and employers.