Move towards graduation at 18, says Tory committee chair

Janet Downs's picture

GCSEs and A levels should be replaced with graduation at 18, Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, is expected to say today.  He will suggest a Baccalaureate system comprising exams taken at 18, arts, sciences and vocational subjects when he addresses the Edge charity.

GCSEs are pointless, he will say.

I have long argued that England should move to graduation at 18 via multiple routes.  Where I differ from Halfon is his wish to ditch GCSEs and A levels. 

A graduation certificate at 18 could comprise GCSEs, A levels and existing vocational exams (forget T levels – we already have BTecs) while incorporating other activities such as work experience, a portfolio showing competence in creative subjects, an extended essay, taking part in a range of activities including sport, drama, dance, scouting, Duke of Edinburgh Award and voluntary work.

This would avoid the widespread upheaval caused by entirely dismantling our existing system particularly when it’s been extensively overhauled in recent years.

While GCSEs aren’t entirely ‘pointless’ as Halfon will argue, the emphasis on GCSEs could be much reduced by viewing GCSEs as stepping-stones towards future study at 16+ (called upper secondary in other countries) and reduce the mandatory number of GCSEs to, say, three core subjects: maths, English and science.

Pupils would continue to study a broad range of subjects up to 16 without the need to drop them at 14 (or, worse, at 13).  But there would be no compulsion to take a formal exam unless pupils wished to do so – teacher assessment in subjects outside the core together with pupil preference could decide future pathways.

One thing is essential, however.  Stop using GCSEs to judge schools.  Examinations should benefit the pupils taking them.  Pupils’ needs are paramount – not the school, not the academy trust and certainly not a political system. 

The goal is graduation at 18 via multiple routes.  Only then will we have a system which serves each young person and not politicians who delight in boasting how their ‘reforms’ have boosted standards.  But measuring schools by academic test results has negative consequences.  The worst of these being a decline in education quality and a devaluing of any success which can’t be measured by formal academic exams.


UPDATE 11 February 13.08:  More details of Halfon's speech are given at Schools Week.  These include Halfon's suggestion for 16-19 education whereby the upper secondary curriculum would be made up of six subject groups.  Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary said there was 'merit to the idea of scrapping GCSEs' and moving towards a single set of exams at 18 but warned about 'significant practical problems'.  






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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 11/02/2019 - 15:38


This Halfon proposal aims to make school leavers more employable at age 18, with a greater diversity and choice of 16 - 18 educational opportunities.

Nothing wrong with that, but the consequences could be dire for the 14 - 16 curriculum with the creation of life determining choices/hurdles at 14.

At lunchtime today, in response to this issue,  BBC presenter Carrie Gracy interviewed a pro14-18 Academy promoter. As usual with BBC presenters, she demonstrated complete ignorance of educational issues and gave him a very soft time. Fortunately, as regularly documented by Janet, these vocation Academies are failing in ever increasing numbers.

I fear that any move to abolish GCSEs will result in specialisation at 14 either in 'vocational/technical  schools' (the worst possible outcome) or career defining 14+ GCSE subject choices within schools (nearly as bad).

It is interesting to return to the 1980s and consider the Conservative government's Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI). This gave secondary schools very large grants (enormous by today's standards) for meeting the TVEI curriculum criteria, the key points of which were a broad and balanced, non gender specific curriculm at 14+ for all students regardless of ability. In particular all students had to take GCSE courses in English, Maths , IT, Double Award Science or at least 2 x separate sciences, at least 1 modern language, a humanities subject, a creative subject and a non gender specific technology/design subject. 'Option' subject choices for KS4 (which never started in Y9) would be restricted to two subjects eg music, drama, a third science, GCSE PE, or an Arts/Design subject. The basic principle was that it was not allowed for 14+ GCSE subject choices to restrict 16+ subsequent A Level/BTEC or employment choices for any student.

The school got Brownie points if as a result of TVEI, A Level courses had a good gender balance across all subjects. At the Bosworth Collge in Leicestershire, where I taught, this was largely achieved. We had lots of high achieving girls in our A Level Maths, Physics and Chemistry groups and lots of boys in Arts and Humanities subjects.

Like most schools with a sixth form, the only non A level subjects were one year GCSE resits in English and maths. Lots of students left at 16 to follow vocational courses at FE Colleges in Hinckley or Leicester.

In my view this produced very sound curriculum and TVEI was a great success.

The very idea of 14+ vocational/technical schools would have been completely unacceptble to the TVEI philosophy.

The notion of dividing pupils into 'academic' or 'vocational' streams at 14 is as bad and unacceptable as the 11+ and for the same main reasons.

Cognitive development proceeds at different rates in different children. It also happens in spurts rather than a steady rate (as assumed by EEF curriculum judgements). In secondary schools the crucial cogntive transition is between Piaget's concrete and formal operational thinking levels. This transition may take place at any age from Y5 in KS2 to adulthood. The greatest cognitive fluidity in a typical secondary school is probably at around the age of 14, which makes this age a terribly bad one for making school and or subject choices with irrevocal career and life consequences.

In my case, as a July born 'late developer', I found the transition from GCSE to A Levels in maths, physics and chemistry largely baffling and something I have only fully come to terms with as a 70+ retired adult!

So NO, NO, NO to vocational/academic divides at 14 and YES,YES,YES to broad and balanced curriculum for all school students up to 16.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/02/2019 - 09:10

As far as I'm aware, Halfon wasn't suggesting a 14-19 curriculum but a 'holistic' one leading up to 18.  None of the media articles about what Halfon would say (rather than what he did say) mention pupils choosing a pathway at 14 (see FE week for a longer analysis).  However, Halfon has form on supporting UTCs'  He called them 'incredible' when he was Apprentice and Skills Minister in 2016 (see FE week again).

Nevertheless, it's welcome that a former minister is advocating graduation at 18.  But, as I said above, this could be more easily done by incorporating what we already have rather than overhaul the whole system. 

This is something Labour could advocate especially if it were accompanied by dropping GCSEs as a performance measure for schools.  Unfortunately, Labour has in the past been as eager as all post-2010 governments to use GCSEs (and the notorious 'equivalent' measure) to show their peferred schools (academies) were better than other types of schools.



John Mountford's picture
Tue, 12/02/2019 - 10:38

As a political 'insider', Halfon is doing us the favour of challenging the cherished notion that the reforms in place are set to deliver a 'world-class' secondary school system. He seems to recognise the disastrous impact of gaming the system on the quality and breadth of education many schools are now offering. At the very least he appears to accept that with the move to youngsters remaining in education or training until 18, the current examination system is woefully inadequate and planned reforms will not resolve the problem.

This and previous governments have narrowed the curriculum to the extent that it is changing the balance even in primary schools. For those primaries that struggle to vault the testing hurdle the impact on children is now damaging. By electing to do all they can to avoid negative judgement from Ofsted, schools in both sectors fail to offer the best we now know can be delivered. While the pressure is ever downward in the system the prospect of achieving the best for the most children and young people is not attainable. If Halfon's intervention goes some way to achieving this, it gets my backing.

As a minimum we need to see league tables abolished. This will focus minds on what we value as an outcome for young people leaving compulsory education. Another basic requirement is to end the practice of early subject selection thus ensuring a broad curriculum experience as a basic entitlement.

Janet, you are right to declare "all post-2010 governments (to) use GCSEs (and the notorious 'equivalent' measure) to show their peferred schools (academies) were better than other types of schools." To end this we need to move to graduation at 18 "by incorporating what we already have rather than overhaul the whole system. " as you say. And, as Roger points out, "Cognitive development proceeds at different rates in different children." Surely there can be no better reason for overhauling the system and maybe Halfon will gain support in parliament for a thorough review of the system. (However, I'll not hold my breath on that thought while the present set of muppet politicians remain in parliament!!)

agov's picture
Wed, 13/02/2019 - 11:14

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/02/2019 - 12:26

Thanks, agov.  Good to hear from you again.   It's encouraging that Baker should criticise extending Key Stage Four and express concerns about a 'knowledge-rich curriculum' being dictated from the top.  However, it's ironic he should say that because he dictated the national curriculum.

Baker seems to have rewritten history.  GCSEs didn't co-incide with the introduction of the national curriculum.  They were brought in by Keith Joseph who was education secretary from September 1981 to May 1986.  Schools started teaching GCSE courses in September 1986 and were first examined in 1988.  It's true to say Baker was education secretary immediately after Keith Joseph but it's wrong to say he was responsible for their roll-out.  He's crediting himself with the achievement of his predecessor.



John Mountford's picture
Wed, 13/02/2019 - 13:18

Kenneth Baker’s contribution to this subject is to be welcomed. I am no lover of all the political engineering that has gripped education since at least Thatcher’s times. But nothing is more clear than the fact that the examinations and testing regimes supported and mis-managed by every government over at least the period from the 1970s is damaging the life chances of our young people and doing nothing to address societal needs for a more educated populace.

Our young people have been thrown to the lions because of the blatant and biased politicisation of education. There is only one way out of this awful manipulation of policy that affects the lives of all our youngsters. We need a National Commission for Education Governance, free from the party political engineering that is a direct consequence of our fast-failing ‘first-past-the-post’ faux-democracy. But this is about GCSEs!

Baker makes the undeniable statement that “Times have changed”. What he did not say was that opportunities for allowing ill-thought-out change must end. Few would argue with the notion that examination stress is at least making the emergence of a “troubled generation” more likely. The power of examinations league tables to corrupt education is all to evident. He is right to identify the possibility that learning facts for their own sake will not improve the quality of education on offer. I disagree, however, with his optimism that Ofsted’s apparent interest in promoting quality teaching in place of the present data-led inspection and reporting regime will deliver. It will take a major move away from the present mindset to bring that about.

There is another issue I am at odds with Baker about - training is not education. The example of schools that align themselves with industry and commerce too early on for students is not necessarily good for the students. Conversely, it is very good for prospective employers. The lesson actually being learned as a result of developments in the US is that given licence, employers will drive education reform for their own commercial ends. As has already been stated, young people do not reach the same levels of maturity at the same time, arguably, not at all. For this reason, it is the responsibility of society to ensure careful stewardship of our young people so that they are not treated as wok fodder.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 14/02/2019 - 09:49

Obviously in my last sentence I meant to write 'work'. Quite clearly, no person in their right mind, not even a very sick minister of state for education would want to see young people being 'woked'.

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