Is it time we abolished the GCSE?

September 1, 2000

This year's exam results and clearing season has been marked by a new surge of interest in changing the school year to allow university admissions to be made on the basis of known results, not speculation. This is an outcome greatly to be desired. Many - predictably teachers but perhaps also a surprising number of parents who enjoy getting to know their children again during the summer - might regret the end of the long holiday. But two summer holidays could be better than one, and ending the time-consuming year-long applications circus, with its accusations of bias, could be worth the price.

This year there has been an added twist, with the curious double act by the outgoing and the incoming heads of the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency. Nick Tate, on his way to head Winchester College, has suggested that school pupils are over-examined and it might be time to abolish GCSEs. His successor, Professor David Hargreaves, floated the idea of graduation ceremonies to mark completion of education at 18.

Staying-on rates have already improved substantially. Targets have been set to raise higher education participation to 50 per cent. Curriculum 2000 will mean wider and more flexible exams after 16. Ending public exams at 16, with their implication that this is when most people have finished formal education, could be timely. Moving to one terminal set of public examinations could give the impetus needed to make staying on after 16 the normal expectation. It would bring us into line with the United States and continental Europe where high school graduation or success at the bac, Abitur or equivalents mark the successful end of secondary education and provide the admission qualification for higher education.

This is not to suggest automatic entitlement to university entry. A university's right to select its students is a fiercely guarded part of its autonomy, and not without reason - open entry has damaged many famous continental institutions. But open entry at the community college level is another matter: it has been the means of hugely increasing participation in the US. Our further education colleges have open entry already because recruitment rather than oversubscription is their main problem. If schools held on to more pupils at 16 and further education colleges became more like US community colleges, we could perhaps end the rivalry between them while boosting participation at all ages.

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