GCSE should be a national exam taken at 14

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An education charity report is calling for GCSEs to be taken at the age of 14, with a clearer divide between lower and upper secondary school, since GCSEs will no longer be relevant as end-of-school exams for 18 year-old school leavers. After GCSEs, pupils would specialise in academic or vocational courses until they leave school.

The proposal that the GCSE should be adapted to become a national examination for 14-year-olds is made by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham in a report published by the Sutton Trust, who are calling for a system to replace the current 'untidy mix'.

The authors say that the Government could make ‘education 14-19’ a reality by moving and adapting the GCSE to become the national examination for 14-year-olds.

“This would then become the natural starting point for an array of awards taking young people in different directions," says the report. "If these were sufficiently attractive, young people would want to stay on for as long as it took to gain a qualification and there would be no need for the sticks necessary to impose compulsory staying on.”

At present there is a system in which a form of undeclared selection takes place, said Prof Smithers.

Options are chosen at 14 and exams are taken at 16. This determines pupils' future pathways but in a system which, he says, does not want to be seen as selective. The system also has a lack of clear routes into technical and work-based training.

"Hence we have to import so many skilled workers from abroad," he said. "It's a hangover from the 11-plus."

While such a major reform may be a step too far for the Government, the Charity believes that clearer educational options from age 14 onwards are needed to ensure that children from non-privileged backgrounds pursue the choices that genuinely reflect their interests and abilities.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “England remains an outlier on the international stage in terms of the different educational pathways offered to children during their formative years – and effectively we have differentiation by default: all too often children’s choices are dictated by the school they happen to be in, not their own talents and interests."

26 of the 30 OECD countries have a clear array of pathways in the later years of schooling, spanning pre-university, technical training and preparation for employment. In the USA, Canada and New Zealand the pathways open up post school.

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