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GCSEs and A levels under fire as senior figures call for shake-up

Students sitting exams. Education select committee chairman Robert Halfon has suggested overhauls to the education system to give students a broader range of skills alongside academic knowledge. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Students sitting exams. Education select committee chairman Robert Halfon has suggested overhauls to the education system to give students a broader range of skills alongside academic knowledge. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Two fixtures of the UK education system have come under fire from senior figures for not preparing children well enough for the world of work.

The president of the Royal Society has today called for a transformation of post-16 education, saying A levels are outdated and asking for a review of the system in the next parliament.

It comes a day after Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said GCSEs should be scrapped and replaced with a system which teaches students skills alongside academic knowledge.

Parents and students in Norfolk spoke in support of changes to the system, while headteachers also welcomed the suggestion of a review – but cautioned against more upheaval for schools following years of turbulence.

What do teachers think?

Jim Adams, executive headteacher at Hobart High School in Loddon, felt the need for continuity in schools may outweigh an argument for seismic change.

“Whilst GCSEs in their current form are far from perfect, they are an appropriate qualification for most young people. Following a turbulent few years, the last thing schools need is further disruption. I do however, have some sympathy for the notion that we will need to look again at vocational qualifications at some point in the future,” he said.

Jonathan Taylor, chief executive of the Sapientia Education Trust. Picture: ArchantJonathan Taylor, chief executive of the Sapientia Education Trust. Picture: Archant

Former Norwich headteacher Clare Jones agreed that while there was a need for change, it needed to be carefully implemented.

“There would be some merit in looking at what purpose GCSEs serve: Is there something more imaginative we could be doing with our young people which equips them for the world of work,” she said.

“If the government are going to change anything it needs to be done in partnership with real teachers and school leaders. We also need to ask what employers may want today and in 10, 20, 30 years’ time.”

Jonathan Taylor, chief executive of the Sapientia Education Trust, which runs schools including Wymondham College, said it was “right to consider the ongoing role” of GCSEs.

He added: “The reality is that the increase in the school or training leaving age to 18 has not led to a corresponding review of the broader curriculum, type of qualifications and ages that students should take these qualifications.”

What do the public think?

Clare Jones. Picture: SubmittedClare Jones. Picture: Submitted

Of about 100 readers polled on this newspaper’s website, almost 60pc said they supported scrapping GCSEs.

Those who commented further on the suggestions were in favour of changing the system to make it less stressful and more relevant for students.

One Facebook user said students taking GCSEs were “under far too much pressure than they should be at such a young age”.

Another, who has recently taken her GCSEs, said she felt well prepared following mocks exams but that it was a “stressful” experience for some students.

“I think schools put too much of a ‘This is the most important exam of your life’ thing on them and depending on what field of employment you want to go into you’ll need different things.”

She added: “Maybe schools should try to see what students are interested in employment wise and help with teaching them relevant stuff.”

Hobart High School executive headteacher Jim Adams. Picture: ArchantHobart High School executive headteacher Jim Adams. Picture: Archant

One commentator said: “I definitely think something has to change. There is far too much homework and the exams are excessive. If they can modernise and reduce stress levels of students they will be on a winner.”

Another suggested that exams should be scrapped and the assessments “based on course work only”.

Out on the streets of Norwich, people had mixed views on ditching the exams.

Lorraine Stainsby, 49, a catering worker from Thetford, said: “Bad idea, because at 16 kids need to make a decision whether they go down the vocational route or academic. I’ve got two kids and they did one each.”

Mary Osborne, a 59-year-old retiree from Norwich, said: “Not everyone is academic and not everyone can use their hands. Kids shouldn’t feel like failures if they don’t choose to do psychology at A level.”

Marketer Natasha Delgado, 26, from Three Score in Norwich, said: “No, not everyone wants to do A levels. Exams are a good way to test what has been learnt. It’s also another option for employers as they don’t want everyone who is academic.”

Should GCSEs and A levels be replaced with a system which focuses on skills as well as knowledge? Picture: Getty ImagesShould GCSEs and A levels be replaced with a system which focuses on skills as well as knowledge? Picture: Getty Images

Time for an overhaul?

In a speech on Monday former government minister Robert Halfon suggested that GCSEs should be replaced by new exams which measure students’ academic and technical skills as well as their personal development, to help cultivate “soft” skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork which can be lost in a focus on rote learning.

Meanwhile, in a speech on education to the Royal Society business forum on Tuesday, society president Venki Ramakrishnan will say that “endless tinkering with elements of the system has left many people tired of, and sceptical about, calls for change”.

Research by the society suggests that parents support the idea, with more than half believing young people should be encouraged to study a broader range of subjects than they currently do.

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