The head of the CBI says a date must be set in the next five years to scrap GCSEs and introduce an exam system with equal status for vocational subjects.
John Cridland, director general of the employers’ group, says England’s exam system is narrow and out of date.
He proposes a system in which the most important exams would be A-levels, including both academic and vocational subjects, taken at the age of 18.
Ministers are pushing for all pupils to take a core group of academic GCSEs.
“By the end of this parliament, I want to see the date for the last GCSEs circled in the secretary of state’s diary,” said Mr Cridland, who warns of a ‘false choice’ between academic and vocational lessons.
In a speech at the annual Festival of Education at Wellington College, Mr Cridland will set out an employers’ blueprint for improving schools.
He says that for too long “we’ve just pretended” to have an exam system that values vocational education, when in practice, exams have operated as stepping stones towards a university degree.
Mr Cridland argues that GCSEs have been made an irrelevance when pupils stay in education or training until the age of 18.
In having such major exams at the age of 16, he says: “We have to face the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we’re the oddballs.”
“GCSEs are past their sell-by date and should be retired.”
He says that the only purpose they serve now is to allow measurement of schools through league tables.
The proposal to scrap GCSEs comes as ministers are pushing for an even greater emphasis on academic GCSEs, with plans for all pupils to have to take core academic subjects.
This announcement “misses the point that we need curriculum reform, not just exam reform,” says the CBI chief.
“The government must make a start on a full review of 14-to-18 education by the end of the summer.”
‘Not second best’
Mr Cridland describes the current vocational education as a “restricted, unloved range of options” and “a social and economic own goal.”
“Non-academic routes should be rigorous and different to academic ones, but not second best.”
The lack of a strong vocational education at the moment means that many pupils are poorly served, he says, as not all children are suited to a narrowly academic approach.
For employers, it can mean that they have to carry out ‘remedial’ work with young recruits to get them ready for the workplace.
From the perspective of employers, he says the school system needs to teach skills beyond academic lessons, such as character and resilience.
“Debates about schools structure and exam reform are sterile if they aren’t linked to outcomes for young people. And that is a missing link in our system.”
He also called for an Ofsted system that recognises innovation, rather than an excessive focus on data. “Rebel head teachers succeed in spite of the system, not because of it,” he says.
Mr Cridland also wants more engagement from business in education.
The lack of good quality careers education remains a major problem, he says, and he argues that businesses should play a bigger part in making links between school and employment.
“Schools shouldn’t be places where businesspeople drop their kids at the beginning of the day like they drop off their dry-cleaning,” he says.
The Department for Education said: “A rigorous academic curriculum until age 16 is the best way to ensure that every child succeeds, regardless of their background, and allows us to be ambitious for everyone, to keep options open and horizons broad.”
A department spokeswoman said A-levels had been reformed “to ensure they are equipping young people with the skills and knowledge for higher education and the world of work.”
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