As secretary of state for education during the late 1980s, I was responsible for the introduction of the national curriculum and with it the GCSE exams. It made absolute sense at that point, bringing together and consolidating separate tests to mark what, at the time, meant the end of their time in education for many young people.

Times have changed.

Most profoundly, the participation age in education and training was increased first to 17 in 2013 and then to 18 in 2015. Now that all young people are required to participate, whether in school, college or apprenticeships, it makes no sense for GCSEs at the age of 16 to be the high stakes exams that they remain. When I took the school certificate in 1950, only 7 per cent of students stayed on – now the reverse is true!

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They have a profound impact on young people’s mental health, as Gus O’Donnell recently recognised in his warning that exam stress is creating a “troubled generation”. Just as important though, is the impact that they have on young people’s experience in schools and on the behaviour of teachers.

We need to create our next generation of engineers and creative leaders and yet the narrow EBacc [English Baccalaureate] suite of GCSEs is pushing technical and creative subjects out of the curriculum. We have seen a 57 per cent fall in design and technology entries since 2010, and a 20 per cent reduction in creative subjects in the same time period. 

The focus on GCSE performance tables is creating such a pressure to drive up academic results that many schools are now teaching GCSEs over three years and being forced into rote learning to deliver the “knowledge-rich” curriculum that is being dictated from the top.

This is directly at odds with what employers say they are looking for. There are huge skills shortages within our economy – 226,000 vacancies in 2017 where employers simply could not find individuals with the right skills to fill the role. This costs the economy over £6.3bn per year according to leading research from the Open University.

Businesses are absolutely clear how to fill those skills shortages and the answer is not more rote learning of facts and figures. The CBI’s annual education and skills survey set out that the biggest drivers of young people’s success are attitudes and aptitudes. Similarly, the government’s own Employer Skills Survey pointed resoundingly to two areas of focus: first, technical and practical skills and second, interpersonal, teamworking and problem-solving skills.

Some schools are already leading the way in developing those skills. At School 21 in Stratford, all Year 10 pupils go out for half a day a week to work in real businesses on live projects. At XP in Doncaster, pupils work on exciting cross-curricular projects that get them to reflect on their local community and its history. At Reading UTC, members of staff from leading local employers come into the school to set students real projects and work with them to find solutions.

I have been delighted to hear Amanda Spielman’s recent comments reflecting the importance of a broad curriculum and going beyond simple data to assess how a school is preparing its pupils. We absolutely need to move from a curriculum that is “knowledge-rich” to one that is “knowledge-engaged” – not learning facts for their own sake but understanding how to put them to use to build and communicate a rich argument or solve a problem.

It is now time for education policy to catch up.

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As Robert Halfon MP, chair of the education select committee, made clear at our Edge Foundation event on Monday, we must fundamentally reimagine this phase of education. That means quietly putting to sleep the GCSE exams that I introduced and that have now had their day.

In their place, what we need is a true baccalaureate at 18. Just as the International Baccalaureate does in more than 149 countries, this should recognise academic and technical skills together with every individual’s personal development. It would enable every young person to develop the rounded skills they need for work and life and act as a genuine and trusted signal to employers and universities of their abilities.

Lord Baker is chair of the Edge Foundation and was secretary of state for education between 1986 and 1989


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