Reaching a Tipping Point? Education 14 – 19

Labour could ditch GCSEs within 10 years, says Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt April

For several years 3Di has advocated the abolition of 16+ examinations. The first sign that something might be stirring in our national conversation about GCSEs and high stakes examinations came with the announcement of an inquiry into education by the Confederation of British Industry in May 2012:

Speaking at the launch of a CBI inquiry into education, John Cridland argued that abandoning GCSEs could help deliver a more rounded education.

“There’s something about this GCSE funnel which produces a prescribed form of learning which seems to be teaching for the test.

“It frustrates teachers because it stops them delivering that inspirational classroom experience, and you see young people being switched off.”

“It seems to me that we’ve raised the participation age to 18 and we’re left with an education system that focuses on 16,” said Cridland.

Many other countries do without a public exam at 16. Finland, the highest performing school system in Europe according to the OECD’s rankings, has just one public exam, at 18, though children are regularly tested at younger ages.

Cridland also said: “We need to give school leaders more freedom to motivate, to recognise, to reward high performance, and deal with poor performance, and I would go further, we need to give teachers more freedom to teach. If you have an inspirational teacher why don’t we do what we do in business, back the guy or girl that you trust to deliver excellence rather than tell them how to do it.”

The CBI’s final report of its inquiry was published in November 2012, and said this:

“Move the focus of our exam system to 18 and develop clearly rigorous and stretching standards for both academic and vocational A-levels, with maths and English retained until 18 for both.”

“A move [away] from GCSEs in the middle of this decade, but the development of a more rigorous and diverse assessment approach that helps better decision-making by young people at the key points of age 14, 16 and 18 rather than simply substituting GCSEs with a more rigorous exam at 16.”

First Steps CBI

First Steps CBI

We’ve now in the middle of the decade. Yesterday the Labour party’s spokesman for education, Tristram Hunt, said this:

“It is a big, hairy conversation that you have to begin early and then shape some of the discussion around. I would hope by the end of a five-year parliament there was a consensus about creating a 14-19 curriculum and qualification framework, and I would not be surprised, or indeed saddened, if that meant in a decade’s time we were beginning to phase out GCSEs.”

In a decade’s time? 2025? Beginning to phase out? This would be thirteen years after the CBI’s inquiry came to very clear conclusions about the need to abolish 16+ exams. How many young people will by then have been processed through what are essentially pointless exams and an experience of school that’s of inferior quality to what it ought to be? How many teachers will be desperate to teach to a baccalaureate and feeling frustrated that politicians are again preventing them from doing the right thing?

So Mr Hunt –  what if a significant group of prominent individuals and organisations agree that these exams need to be abolished, including the teaching profession as a whole?

This is what the British Chambers of Commerce said in its report on education, back in January 2014:

“Many employers are confused by the wide range of different qualifications and frequent changes to the system by successive governments.”

“Individuals are branded for life by the grades they achieve at school with little opportunity or incentive to improve those grades.”

“Inadequate careers information, advice and guidance means that few young people are able to make an informed decision based on the full range of opportunities available to them, and many focus on skills that are poorly matched to demand from employers. Business has had enough of this broken system and calls for urgent reform.”

We agreed with the BCC and its call for urgent reform  . . . but we were not in the least surprised when the report was ignored by Michael Gove. We also agree that many young people are likely to branded for life by the grades they receieve in timed high stakes examinations taken at a very vulnerable time of their lives. Increasingly we hear from employers (and even university academics) that they have little regard for performance in timed tests and examinations, and look for a much broader range of attitudes and skills when looking for staff or students. The report is well worth a read:

We ask ourselves whether Mr Gove ever read the report. Has Mr Hunt?

We also wonder what Mr Hunt will do if the majority within the teaching profession now say to him they want to see changes to 16 – 19 pushed through much quicker than he currently envisages.

The Headteachers’ Round Table group has said it wants to see a 14 to 18 baccalaureate as soon as possible.

Professor Ken Spours of London University’s Institute of Education, who chairs the Compass pressure group’s education group and instigated with the NUT the Compass/NUT inquiry into education, has said, “Our nation should have an inclusive, comprehensive and unified approach to 14-19 education and training’

The headmaster of Eton College has made his views quite clear (August 2013):

Abolish ‘Victorian’ GCSEs says headmaster of Eton: Tony Little argues teenagers should not take any exams until they are 18 to ‘loosen’ what schools teach

‘As soon as you go into the world of work, the last thing on the whole you do is sit down on your own without speaking. You’re dealing in teams, you’re dealing in groups, you’re sharing things.

‘What I’d like to see is a more inventive approach, a loosening of what we expect at the age of 16 so one could introduce qualifications based on the shared experience of young people. Personally I’d be very happy with a system with a robust examination at the age of 18 and more freedom for schools about how they get there.’

In March 2015, in his NET Mike Baker Memorial Lecture, Mr Little said,

“Skills for effective behaviour and attitudes in a globalised economy are not fuelled by purely academic excellence”

“The relentless focus on measurable outcomes and exam pressures has seriously undermined what great education is all about.”

The teaching profession needs “more space, more light, more trust in its judgement”.

Tony Little

Back in November 2012 there was a discussion hosted by Eton College on the future of GCSEs, organised by the National Education Trust (NET). Having attended the event we wrote the following:

Mr Little said, “The excessive, remorseless drive to measure things feels like a straitjacket”, and went on to say we have atomised learning into bite-size pieces that are aimed at hitting a particular target rather than working towards real learning and enabling pupils to see the connections between things. He said that GCSEs have locked us in to a methodology of teaching to the test, and said that we should trust teachers to teach, to assess, to do both formative and summative assessment, and to understand the needs of the young people with whom they are working.

He said we have “cabined, cribbed and confined” children through our examination system and we should consider our role and responsibility to educate the whole child, quoting John Milton’s call for a “generous education” where a young person has wide experiences, a holistic education and a means to develop a generosity of spirit and an openness of mind.

Mr Little concluded by saying that tests, exams and league tables undermine relationships and ‘destroy the expansiveness of education’. We must educate the whole person, in order to give the best life chances. There is no status or merit in achieving particular prescribed things in certain prescribed ways. We need a system that enables students to build up portfolios of experience and achievement – that show students’ ability to apply information, for example. We need to move away from the “limited and pernicious” system of formal, time-limited examinations.

Let’s consider also a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which advocates:

an accountability system which encourages responsibility for a learner across the whole period – including shifting the focal point for performance assessment away from attainment at age 16 and towards progress across the whole 14–19 period.

Do we really have to wait till 2025 to move our system forward?


See also:

A report published by the New Visions For Education Group (January 2014)

Report and Recommendations from the New Visions for Education 14-19 Sub Group

9. Vocational and continuing education is devalued, whilst cuts to continuing education may have contributed to England’s poor showing in the recent OECD report.

10. Vocational education is narrow and would benefit from the type of enrichment as proposed for general education.

11. GCSEs provide for subject breadth but are regarded by many as the means of selection at 16+ rather than developing more diverse skills for progression.

12. Studying 3 A levels is exceedingly narrow cf other systems and students would benefit from a broader curriculum.

13. Elective A levels allow learners to avoid ‘difficult’ subjects and the focus on three /four specialist subjects leaves insufficient attention on the development of 21st Century competences. (Warsaw Centre for Social and Economic Research 2009)

14. A narrow focus on academic results, with constantly disaggregated subject scores with the goal posts changed with no advance warning, ignores the range of skills and competences required for the 21st century.

15. 14-19 education and its selective qualifications have a very direct impact on life chances. This phase deepens social divisions between those who succeed and attain places in prestigious universities at one end and those who remain NEET.

16. An increasingly neglected group of middle attainers lies forgotten in between. (Hodgson and Spours, 2013)

17. A damaging academic –vocational divide is reinforced by a bewildering array of competing institutions for 14-19 year olds.

18. 14-19 education is intersected by several reinforcing divisions that prevent the development of common expectations of all.

19. A regime of ‘high stakes’ testing has left many teachers teaching to the test and increasingly insecure in their pedagogical capabilities.

20. Warning: Any proposed reform of qualifications cannot take place in the shadow of an unreformed general education. This divided approach to qualifications has been consolidated rather than solved since the mid 1980’s.

What has to change?

1. What is needed is a 14-19 system that is sufficiently unified to promote improved performance and social and educational cohesion.

2. The system must be sufficiently diverse to include all learners and their different preferences and needs.

3. It is necessary to create a more stable and sustainable reform process in which educational professionals and wider social partners can play a constructive role.

4. Now that the age for participation in education (RPA) is being raised, this creates opportunities for longer term planning for the most appropriate framework for the curriculum and qualifications.

5. There already exist some 14-19 curriculum pilot projects e.g. Andrew Chubb’s Mod Bac and BetterBac that warrant further investigation. There is also the Head teachers’ Round table Eng Bac ideas and structure framework. This last has some merits but is it the most appropriate for all?

6. It is vital to consider the best model of Baccalaureate for adoption to meet the need for breadth, depth and pathways within a unified and coherent 14-19 system.

7. Respected enrichment programmes such as those from the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) would fit well within such a structure.

8. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the changing situation between FE and 6th Forms; funding issues, staffing levels and expertise; facilities; limitations of small 6th Forms etc.

9. It is appropriate to take on board Mike Grenier of Eton’s use of the term ‘slow education’ to allow for deeper learning and progression over time.



14-18 – Ask what counts

by Professor Richard Pring (March 2013)

Aims of education

Such a question forces us to raise fundamental questions about the aims of education and the values which schools, colleges and youth service should nurture. Unexamined values shape the educational experience of young people from 14 to 18. These values need to be examined critically: for example, the division between prestigious academic pathways for some and vocational studies for others; the dismissal of arts and humanities from the core curriculum at 14 or in the core subjects which had been proposed for the EBac; concentration on examination grades; absence of practical knowledge and experiential engagement for those deemed ‘academic’; the mode through which merit is recognised in formal assessments. All these reflect unquestioned values and thus the aims of education.

What then, by contrast, are the educational aims which enable all young people to live fully human lives – not just the academically able. We need a vision of 14-18 education which embraces those who have opted out of or who are disengaged from formal education – those who are often rescued by colleges of further education or by the youth service with its own distinctive pedagogical approaches (see the evidence of the National Youth Agency to the Select Committee 7 ).

Such aims are: to develop
self-worth – leaving school or college with a sense of achievement and able to enter the adult world with a sense of dignity and confidence;
basic capabilities in reading, numeracy and communicating both orally and in writing;
knowledge and understanding for the intelligent management of life – making sense of the social, physical and economic worlds they inhabit;
practical capabilities through which they come to understand the world in a different way and to act creatively within it;
• ‘moral seriousness’ in thinking about the life worth living and about the big problems which affect the future (e.g. environmental destruction);
capacity to contribute to the wider community of which they are part.

Such aims requires a wider vision of learning than what generally prevails, too often driven by ‘high-stakes testing’ and the consequent league tables.

A wider vision of learning

Formal education is dominated by success in narrowly conceived forms of academic learning, thus undermining other capabilities of importance to our society, namely, those reflecting the broader aims outlined above. This is crucial, not simply for the many young people disengaged from formal learning due to its narrow focus and the deep sense of failure caused, but also for those deemed successful but whose success often lacks understanding of the subject matter. (See, for example, the trenchant criticisms by the Smith Report where successful teaching to the test, though leading to high scores, too often leads to poor understanding) 8 .

A wider vision of learning is required, one which respects the practical as well as the academic, informal and experiential as well as formal learning, key concepts and ideas as well as facts and formulae, and the possibilities opened up by recent developments in Information and Communication Technology. It should draw on the range of expertise and resources within the community. There is a need, therefore, to restore

practical capability and technical knowledge, for, in words of the Royal Society of the Arts, which for 250 years has emphasized the unity of thinking and doing, there exists in its own right a culture which is concerned with doing and making and organising and the creative arts. This culture emphasises the day to day management of affairs, the formulation and solution of problems, and the design, manufacture and marketing of goods and services 9.
And yet that ‘intelligent doer’ is too often neglected – unrecognised in the ‘standards’ by which learner and school or college are tested;

• development of understanding, namely, a grasp of the key ideas through which young people understand (at different levels) the physical, social and moral worlds they belong to. This must not be confused with the ‘transmission of knowledge’, as is illustrated by ACME’s The Mathematical Need of the Learner;

• the centrality of the arts (drama, dance, fine arts) through the active participation in which young people are enabled to explore what it means to be human;

• space for discussing matters of personal and social concern, based on evidence and experience (e.g., as in once widespread ‘Humanities Curriculum Project’);

• emphasis on the quality of work-based learning;

engagement in community activities through which they come to see how their efforts, howsoever modest, can make a difference for the better.

All the above need to be learned through the initiation into the different forms of knowledge and understanding, into moral traditions so neglected, into practices of doing and making, and into civic and public traditions of service.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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