Students don’t need a new GCSE – they need a revolution

Robert Halfon MP has recently come forward with a radical new suggestion for our exams system. He’s calling for the government to scrap GCSEs and replace them with a baccalaureate-style qualification that combines academic and vocational subjects to give “a broader curriculum” to students.

But while it’s clear that school-leavers are often ill-equipped for the practical aspects of working adult life, I hardly think that yet another overhaul in our education system is the answer to the difficulties facing UK students and schools.

Just to name a few changes, the last five years alone have seen the introduction – and soon the dissolution – of the English Baccalaureate, the end of AS-Levels and the replacement of the GCSE A*-C classification with a 9-1 scale, without much substantial to show for it. Simply put, quick fixes and poorly planned reforms are exactly what have created the mess in our state schools in the first place, and Halfon’s proposals don’t seem to be an exception.

There is undoubtedly a gap in UK schooling for vocational training that’s failing students more suited to technical roles over academic study. Indeed, this pro-academic hierarchy, and in particular its prioritisation of STEM subjects, maintains deep roots in our society and has only been compounded by rising poverty and disruptive policies like the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Scrapping GCSEs would not be beneficial to anyone. It would not even benefit students who are not suited to current teaching and assessment methods

Scrapping GCSEs would not be beneficial to anyone. It would not even benefit students who are not suited to current teaching and assessment methods. While he reasons that students leave education at 18 – and can therefore avoid gaining qualifications at 16 -, what Halfon forgets is that until recently 16 was still the leaving age and that GCSEs were end of school qualifications that everyone aimed for. Rather than scrapping GCSEs altogether, a stronger suggestion seems to be a re-lowering the leaving age and expanding opportunities for technical and vocational qualifications.

The UK’s education crisis won’t be resolved until policy makers have figured out what the purpose of education is really supposed to be

Most importantly, I don’t think that the UK’s education crisis will be resolved until policy makers have figured out what the purpose of education is really supposed to be. It goes without saying that society has changed a lot since the 1880 Education Act that made school compulsory. In those days, working class children were the factory workers of the future and the authorities realised that an educated workforce was a more productive one. With the rise of automation and the robot-takeover of many manual labour jobs, society needs to reflect on changing roles in the economy and the kind of qualifications people will need to succeed in them.

Indeed, just about every level of our education system needs to account for both academic and technical skills without valuing one above the other. So long as we maintain this top-heavy education system, then, intergenerational inequality will only continue to grow. And even if Halfon’s suggestion did work against this, it would be a mere drop in the bucket.

I fear that introducing vocational options at any level would open the door to privatisation of the education system

Of course, these mixed courses would have to be carefully planned and tested before being introduced in schools and universities. The greatest emphasis must also remain on the education of young people. Admittedly, though, I fear that introducing vocational options at any level would open the door to privatisation of the education system.

The private sector must not be allowed to intrude upon state education and I would also be weary of undergraduate programmes becoming too influenced by private organisations. The privatisation of other state-owned services like the railways, the Royal Mail, and, increasingly, the NHS has proven disastrous to the quality of the service provided.

Overall, it is clear to me that more educational reforms will be disruptive and useless if the structural problems within our schooling system are not addressed. The conveyor belt of ‘solutions’ we’ve seen over the years (if not actively damaging) have been totally ineffective, and have only brought stress, anxiety, and confusion to teachers, parents, and students alike. If we want real change for UK education, we need to work out what it’s for. 

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