Core business

What 16 year olds should expect at the end of compulsory education is rightly back on the education policy agenda, in particular due to the Conservative Party’s review of school examinations in England led by Sir Richard Sykes. The English system offers a much lower level of attainment compared with competitor countries.

The English system expects students to achieve two academic GCSEs – English and mathematics – at age 16. Other developed countries typically expect four or five as a minimum. Of the ten leading developed countries, eight require examinations in at least four academic subjects.

The academic examinations taken by English students can be of much lower quality. For this paper, leading English, maths and science academics have analysed examinations in those subjects for 16 year olds from France, Germany, Japan, the US and Canada. They have found that mathematics and science GCSEs in England are of a much lower quality than in other countries. English GCSE is of a comparable quality.

Academic qualifications are becoming more important in the modern economy. They benefit individuals: GCSEs add 15 per cent to average earnings, whereas vocational qualifications can actually reduce earnings by up to 0.2 per cent. They improve general economic growth by enabling people to move between occupations. In contrast, vocational qualifications lead to occupational segregation, where different people become concentrated in different jobs, irrespective of their actual abilities.

The danger is that genuine academic qualifications such as the individual sciences or modern foreign languages will become restricted to independent, grammar and the best comprehensive schools, reducing social mobility. Only 0.2 per cent of individuals progress from non-academic routes into higher education.

Countries such as Japan and Canada already expect a high level of academic achievement from all pupils. Countries such as Germany and France are increasing the academic requirement of students. But England is stuck in a rut. Since the mid-1980s, and under governments of both parties, the assumption has been that a large minority of English students are not up to studying academic qualifications. Politicians have continued on a vain quest to invent a robust vocational route and to create parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications. The reality is merely that many children have been directed to follow poorly-regarded courses at the expense of academic qualifications.

In the last five years, the Government has accepted that there should be some “core” academic study. In 2005, it argued that the key measure in school performance tables for 16 year olds should include English and maths, and that students should study functional English and maths. The first proposal was right since it sends a clear incentive to schools and a clear message to students that English and maths are essential subjects. The second was wrong since the level of “functional skills” is far below that of GCSEs.

In this year’s White Paper, Your child, your schools, your future, the Government proposed a “guarantee” to pupils in regard to their school education, which will go into statute via the new Children, Schools and Families Bill. But the guarantee provides only a guarantee of choice of routes of learning rather than a broad core of high quality study.

English pupils need a different kind of guarantee – an expectation of academic achievement at the level of Japan and Canada. Two key reforms are necessary:

Introducing a strong academic core for all pupils, consisting of five academic GCSEs, and changing school league tables to incentivise attainment in the core.

Putting academics and subject experts in charge of GCSEs, in place of Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, to ensure that the qualifications are rigorous and fit for purpose.