GCSE exams in England should be scrapped and replaced with a baccalaureate for school leavers that includes vocational skills and personal development, as part of a radical overhaul proposed by an influential Conservative MP.
Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow who chairs the House of Commons education select committee, is the first Conservative policymaker to break ranks over the future of GCSE exams, after the government’s efforts to improve their status by making them more difficult.
Halfon, who has campaigned to improve perceptions of technical education and apprenticeships, will argue on Monday that the emphasis on 16-year-olds taking GCSEs has led to a narrow focus on academic attainment and rote learning, and that a well-rounded education requires more breadth.
“I fully support the need for every young person to be able to access, through their schooling, a working knowledge of our cultural capital, our history and our literature. But it is also essential that we are developing our next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and designers,” Halfon will say at a meeting of the Edge Foundation education charity in London.
“All young people should have access to the technical and creative subjects that will give them the skills that employers are looking for. These are not ‘soft skills’ developed at the expense of knowledge, but the essential skills that will enable young people to interpret, manipulate and communicate that knowledge. We must move from knowledge-rich to knowledge-engaged.”
England is unusual among developed countries in requiring secondary school pupils to take two sets of “high-stakes” exams – GCSEs in year 11 and A-levels or similar in year 13, only the first of which are used as a prime measure of school or regional attainment.
Since 2010 the government has been determined to improve the image of GCSEs by reformatting them to be exam-based rather than including coursework, and adding more difficult content.
The new-style GCSEs were first taken two years ago, and some school leaders have complained that the tougher exams have added to pressures on teachers and pupils.
A spokesman for the Department for Education (DfE) said: “GSCEs are the gold-standard qualification at age 16 and a passport to further study and employability. They were recently reformed so that their demand matches that in other high-performing countries and better prepare students for work and further study.”
Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Edge Foundation, said Halfon was reflecting concerns of parents, pupils and business leaders from across sectors.
“This is about far more than just generating a competent workforce. Forward-thinking schools we are working with consistently demonstrate that engaging students in creative learning, rather than just schooling them in factual recall, raises attainment, aspiration and fosters personal growth,” Barnard said.
“It is these qualities and aptitudes that will shape our future engineers, designers, artists, inventors and innovators.”
According to Halfon, schools should be measured by completion of the baccalaureate at 18 and the destinations of their pupils in the years after leaving, rather than by GCSE results.
Halfon will also argue that apprenticeships should be placed on a “gold standard” alongside A-levels and higher education in the eyes of policymakers and parents, and that further education colleges in England are under-funded and under-appreciated.
The DfE said: “We are also taking forward reforms from the independent panel on technical education to give students a clear choice between an academic or technical path at aged 16. T-levels, alongside apprenticeships, will form the basis of our high-quality technical education offer.”