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Some thoughts from Amelia Peterson*

Michael Gove has this week defended his proposals for removal of GCSEs. Both sides of this debate have been argued extensively in recent days, but there has been little progression because the options presented remain hopelessly narrow. As they stand, Gove’s plans are a dangerous cocktail of sensible and contentious moves. There is a solid argument that GCSEs do not necessarily have a place in England’s future education system, yet this does not mean the only option is a return to something like O levels and CSEs.

Those who have come out in favour of reintroducing a two-tiered system have called on the deeply entrenched view that can be summed up as: ‘we must face the fact that some children are academically-minded, others vocationally-minded.’

This view is what we can call a lay theory: a notion of how something works that does not fit the most accurate picture we have.

In this case, the concepts ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ are outdated for two reasons. The first emerges from developments in cognitive science and neurobiology. For a long time it was popular to think of our brains as like a computer: everyone has a set of hardware, but some have a few more GHz than others, thus the spectrum of results on IQ tests and in ‘academic’ ability. Yet we know this is a false picture of both the brain and intelligence. In many respects a more accurate theory is reflected by the old Beano cartoon, “The Numskulls’, where the brain is populated by little people. The important point is not the compartmentalisation, but that skills grow and develop, and can do so at different rates. Moreover, the numbskulls are human, which reflects the fact that learning is an emotional process: getting motivation right is crucial, and when it comes to learning our brain responds much more to a carrot than a stick.

Descriptions of people as ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ therefore have no robust correlate in our biology. They also have increasingly little correlate in our society. Vocational, when set against academic, can refer to those who work with their hands, but as trades have diminished, is often just used rather roughly in place of ‘low skilled’.

For both these reasons, the O level/CSE system would draw a completely artificial line where none need be drawn.

This is not wanting all to have prizes, or fretting abut self-esteem. It would be “economic idiocy”, to use a phrase of Michael Gove's, to allow a system where one group are classed yet more firmly than already occurs as 'not really education material'.

There are solid projections that over the next twenty years the need for low-skilled work will continue to fall, while high-skilled jobs will rise. Analysis of the impact of technology in the second half of the twentieth century demonstrates that already only ‘nonroutine cognitive’ tasks in jobs are growing. Many of the young people just entering work now will need to retrain at some point in their career. Moreover, in an increasingly interrelated world, every agent needs to be able to take responsibility for their actions, which means being prepared to continue learning about how their actions impact surrounding systems. Overall, we cannot afford for even a minority percentage of our population to turn away from learning.

There are other options for 16+ examinations that are more fit for purpose. Firstly, as leaving age moves to 17 or 18, there is no need for comprehensive qualifications at this age, only perhaps a single universal assessment of core skills. The problem of challenging students across the spectrum of profiles could be met by adaptive testing: states in the US have already developed computer-based numeracy and literacy tests where the challenge adjusts for the student. The desire for ‘rigour’ would better be met by tests which push for complex thinking, rather than solely for more content absorption. Assessments appropriate for the future are currently being developed by a consortium of countries – including Gove's oft-cited Singapore – under the name of 21st century skills.

It is a sign of the extent to which education policy is overrun by politics that England's only proposals under consideration are variations on familiar things we have had before. The nature of examinations should not be based on what strikes some intuitive appeal with the public – or worse, on what can be rushed in in two years – but on the most advanced thinking in this area. While education remains so determined by the assessments intended to measure it, the least we can do is try to get those assessments right.

*Amelia Peterson is an intern at the Innovation Unit and spent last year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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