The EBacc controversy sparks a further question. Do we need any public exams at 16? With the school leaving age due to rise to 18 in 2015, why don’t we just have a graduation certificate at that age for everyone?
I can think of several related reasons for an EBacc at 16, but they are all problematic. It gives the curriculum leading up to this age a massive steer in a traditionally academic direction. It is an early identification of students likely to be of university potential. As such, it is attractive to families anxious to secure a professional future for their children. EBacc looks for all the world like a vehicle of selection, a poorly disguised descendant of the 11-plus.
Another dodgy reason for a 16-plus exam has to do with accountability. Results can be classified in league tables, so that we can see how well different schools are faring. But if the latter is our aim, it does not follow that the best means is public testing of students on a mass scale. A good inspection régime, based partly on school self-evaluation, might be part of the answer. In addition, how well a school is doing is a matter of how far it is meeting general educational aims – and these take us far beyond the limited objectives pertaining to testing a few subjects.
Perhaps what we want, though, is a nation-wide picture of how well schools are doing in teaching maths, say, or English. Here again, we would need a good argument for testing individuals en masse, rather than, for instance, revisiting and improving on the sampling techniques used by the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1970s and 1980s.
Removing 16-plus hurdles would leave secondary schools space to create a more worthwhile experience for all their students. This would mean paying more attention to what their aims should be, then sculpting curricula that better reflected them, rather than making do just with traditional ready-mades.
If getting rid of 16-plus exams were still to leave exam pressures at 18, there would at least be less wasted time, less anxiety, less instrumentalism in learning. It would also turn the spotlight back to what a graduation certificate should look like. The 2004 Tomlinson Report was our last source of illumination on this. Its suggestion of a single diploma to replace GCSE, A levels and vocational qualifications is still our best practical guide ahead.
This will still leave, if not exacerbate, the scramble for university places at 18. This can cause great personal distress, as well as restricting schools’ curricular horizons. Here, too, we need a rethink. The idea that students should ideally go straight on to full-time university studies after leaving school may have made good sense two centuries ago, when many people died young. But with perhaps seventy or more years ahead of them, why the pressure to make them think it’s now or never? Do we need to promote incentives for later, not least part-time, studies?