Should GCSEs be scrapped?
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Should GCSEs be scrapped?

No other European country tests young people at 16, so why do we? Should we be focusing on a broader range of skills?

The Chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, has called time on GCSEs. He wants them to be scrapped, and A-Levels replaced by a mix of academic and vocational subjects – to give young people a broader range of skills for their working lives. At The Outward Bound Trust that’s what we’re all about – teaching diverse skills, not just academic attainment. But we’re unsure if exams should be sent to the scrap heap just yet.


An article from Impetus-PEF – a foundation looking to close the gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers – says that GCSEs are proven qualifications which are understood and valued by future employers. This comes after the announcement of the new maths and English Functional Skills qualifications in FE Colleges to be rolled out from September 2019, and the subsequent axing of mandatory maths and English GCSE resits. But Impetus-PEF calls for GCSEs to continue to be a first choice, especially as leaving school without a GCSE A*-C (or 9-4 in the new grading system) in core subjects has a significant negative impact on disadvantaged young people, who struggle to catch up.

Removing GCSEs would also raise questions for schools without sixth forms, and for young people who do not intend to stay to take exams at the age of 18. But Halfon sees GCSEs as an excessively narrow academic pathway, which is failing to prepare young people for the technologically changing workplace.

The skills gap: are our young people lacking?

The Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ new vision for character and resilience training in schools is telling. Do schools focus too much on academic attainment, and are young people lacking in the core skills needed to allow them to thrive beyond school?

The 2014 BCC Business and Education Survey found that two-thirds of businesses believe that secondary schools are not effective in preparing young people for work. The 2016 CBI/Pearson Education Education and Skills Survey also found that around 50% of businesses are not satisfied with school leaver’s work experience (56%), and their skills in communication (50%), analysis (50%) and self-management (48%). Perhaps most importantly, the 2018 Princes Trust Youth Index found that 29% of young people feel that a lack of work experience is hindering their future employment decisions.

50 years ago, work in the UK was full of relative certainties. A University degree meant full-time employment, a career and upward mobility. But there’s no doubt about it – we are now living in a much less certain world. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Human Capital Report 2017 showed that despite this, two core skills are underpinning employment and careers:

1. Interpersonal skills, like leadership and customer service, and

2. Basic technology skills, like using word-processing software and manipulating spreadsheets.

The report suggests that having a strong-base in these cross-functional skills is important across industries and job titles, and give people the option to change careers when needed.

Clearly, there is something missing. Interpersonal skills are skills for life. They are unlikely to be rendered obsolete by technological innovation. We must invest in these basic, core skills to help our young people be successful in their future lives and ever-changing workplaces. This is especially so, given that the WEF’s 2018 Future of Jobs report, suggests that social skills, such as emotional intelligence and the ability to teach others, will be in higher demand across all industries, above technical skills.

Through our courses for apprentices and graduates – which aim to develop key workplace behaviours such as self-awareness, self-management and teamwork – we understand the value of these skills. Although scrapping GCSEs seems like an extreme overhaul of the UK education system, the evidence is increasingly mounting against a narrow focus on academic attainment. Young people and their employers do not feel they are effectively equipped for the workplace when they leave school, and perhaps something needs to change.

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