Employers give GCSEs a stern examination

Business leaders complain GCSEs produce students who can pass exams but lack workplace skills. Education correspondent GARETH McPHERSON asks if the exams at 16 need to change.

Businesses in the country are taking aim at GCSEs, saying employers are struggling to find the right staff because young people are not being prepared at school for the world of work.

John Bridge, of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, said most of the local bosses he speaks to complain that school leavers do not have the required skills because the Government has encouraged schools to become exam-passing factories.

Mr Bridge said: “The key thing for us is the amount of people coming out of the education system who do not have the skills for work.

“The Government has forced schools to focus so much on passing exams because that is what they are judged on.

“It is not an education system that produces people for the future and for the workplace. It does not give them skills for where they want to live and work.”

Mr Bridge believes the school system should be more about training and development and called for “early intervention” to spot those who are less academic.

He added: “Not everyone goes down the academic route and schools should look at giving vocational training at a much younger age, developing their skills in a particular area.

“What we have to do is get a much better dialogue and understanding between businesses and the education system.”

His comments follow the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) questioning the value of GCSEs.

Neil Carberry, director for education at the CBI, which represents business leaders across the country, suggested schoolchildren may not be getting the breadth of education and employability skills that they will need for later in life.

He said: “We are questioning whether we have the structure right at secondary lrvrl, in as much as whether having the current arrangement of exams at 16 is leading people to narrow their choices too early.”

Jon Duveen, of Cambridgeshire NUT, said it was “a bit rich” for businesses to complain about GCSEs narrowing choice when they had repeatedly called for schools to focus on core subjects such as maths and English.

He said: “I think we have to ensure that for GCSEs, kids get a broad and balanced education.

“There should be some vocational elements in there, but businesses have to take responsibility for the education and training in relation to their own business. It’s up to schools to provide what was known as the old liberal education.”

He added he was reluctant for the Government to reject entirely the coursework approach to testing.

“There are issues around coursework assessment, but it does help children achieve – and why do we want to go back on that?”

Tricia Kelleher, headteacher of the Stephen Perse Foundation schools in Cambridge, believes GCSEs are more suited to the Victorian age and says her schools have to go beyond what is taught in the curriculum to prepare pupils for work.

Mrs Kelleher said the country needs to work out what education is for. She said: “Is it social mobility, the political topic of the week, is it to educate our workforce with key skills so that they are more employable, is it to put right all that is dysfunctional in our society or is it to inspire young people as learners?

“Until we have greater consensus on the purpose of schools, the national pastime of bemoaning our education system will continue.”

The Government is looking at changing GCSEs to “restore confidence” – including among businesses.

Exams must be taken at the end of the course and there will be tougher marking of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want all our exams to rank with the best in the world. Our reforms to GCSEs will mean students achieve a real and lasting understanding of a subject.”


Testing at 14 offers a practical alternative

Business leaders are not the first to raise concerns about GCSEs.

Last year, former education secretary Baroness Morris suggested that the exams should be scrapped and replaced with new series of written tests at age 14.

She argued this would allow pupils suited to practical courses to begin studying them at that age.

Some private school heads have put forward similar suggestions, arguing that the qualifications have run their course.

This year, Professor David Abulafia of Cambridge University said the country’s approach to GCSE history was disjointed, with major events being taught in isolation and pupils often unable to make links between them.

From next year, teenagers will be asked to stay in school or training until they are 17, and in 2015, this requirement will rise to age 18.

The county council was so worried about last year’s GCSE performance it conducted a review.

Although the percentage of pupils in the county’s schools getting at least five good grades in 2011 went up by 0.3 per cent, nationally there was an increase of 5.5 per cent that year.

Paul Champion

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Twitter: @blogapprentice
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