End ‘cliff-edge of GCSEs’ in favour of skills and experience-based education

Students should be tested under a whole person assessment at 18, measuring subject knowledge, skills and experience.

Young woman working on a computer

Recently I heard of a law professor at a college in India who was teaching his students in the context of the Harry Potter novels, exploring the legality of spells and so on. His students are enthusiastic, engaged and gaining a better understanding of what they learn and how to apply it in the real world.

”We inherited our rote-learning education system from the British but it is outdated and ill-serves our students,” he explained. “They don’t teach like that in the UK anymore, so why should we?”

Such a teaching model depends on how much knowledge you can absorb, and how efficiently you can demonstrate what you’ve learnt by regurgitating it in an examination. I would never suggest that knowledge isn’t a valuable asset, but in the age of Google and global communications, I argue it’s the interpretation and application of that knowledge which has the most currency in People Power, a new report from the Changing Work Centre – a Fabian Society/Community initiative.

Technology becomes redundant so quickly now, that empirical knowledge is rapidly less germane, which may explain why reportedly 94 percent of India’s engineering graduates are unemployable because of the lack of applied learning.

The irony is that – like the Indian professor – we might imagine education has moved on from the days of the Raj, but the policies spearheaded by former education secretary Michael Gove and entrenched by school standards minister Nick Gibb mean this Victorian approach now prevails in classrooms.

The government’s ambition for 80 percent of pupils to study the EBacc suite of subjects on which schools will be judged – English, English literature, maths, sciences and so on – has led to a sharp decline in the numbers studying creative and technical subjects.

For students judged less able and entered for just seven GCSEs, these core academic subjects will make up their whole curriculum. It is the same curriculum we had in 1904, except then it included drawing.

The latest NEET (not in education, employment or training) figures for 16 to 24-year-olds continue to hover just below three-quarters of a million, yet there are 600,000 vacancies in the tech sector. 

Our education system increasingly leaves young people ill-prepared for future careers and the wider world, whilst reinforcing the ingrained disparity between the value of ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ talent and ability.

Of course, the paradox is that employers and businesses place less importance on exam grades than on workplace skills, experience and character.

Over the last year, Edge has been supporting three schools in the North East of England which are piloting a project-based learning (PBL) approach. Working with local employers, students explore issues such as homelessness in the context of the real world; they learn the history of the local shipbuilding industry and the maths required for surveying and house-building whilst all the time broadening their career horizons and giving them insight into local jobs.

Early reports are hugely positive. Students engaged in project-based learning are more engaged and the skills and aptitudes they acquire benefit them in other lessons. Teachers say attendance is better on PBL days and behaviour improved. Parents say their children are more confident, more articulate and enthusiastic about their schoolwork.

Edge’s vision for education is for every child to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential wherever their talent lies. We would like to remove the cliff-edge of GCSEs and create a whole person assessment at 18, measuring not just subject knowledge, but skills and competencies which could be acquired via qualifications, work experience, charity work or enterprise.

I was encouraged by a round-table discussion on vocational education and training at the Finnish embassy. The Finnish system is infinitely more flexible than ours with a less binary approach to academic education and vocational education and training. On moving into further education, students are assessed on a competency basis identifying which modules they need to study to fill in any gaps. This process extends to adult education, acknowledging the skills older learners may already have and giving them access to the training and qualifications they need to progress their career or change career completely.

Further education (FE) has been the poor relation of UK education for many years, yet our FE colleges sit at the heart of our communities providing opportunities for learning from school-leavers to adult learners and part-time learners. If we consider that the days of a ‘job for life’ have long gone and the unprecedented pace of technological change, we will all find ourselves with several careers over a lifetime and will need to adapt, re-skill and up-skill in all areas of life, not just work. 

Alice Barnard is the CEO of Edge, an independent education charity. This essay was written as part of a report on the government’s industrial strategy.

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3 Responses to “End ‘cliff-edge of GCSEs’ in favour of skills and experience-based education”

  1. Tom Sacold

    What a load of utter tosh.

    Students need to be tested. Examinations are how we find out who can perform under pressure.

  2. John Pearson

    Exams clearly have their place but they’re certainly not the be-all-and-end-all that Tom seems to suggest. The difficulty is frequently 1) persuading employers that an alternative pathway is worth considering and 2) finding the sheer amount of work experience, work-related opportunities needed.
    Edge sounds like a commendable project. I wish it much luck and success in helping youngsters find a meaningful place in the ever-changing world of work.

  3. Kevin J

    Project-based learning seems like a key part of structuring formal education around the individual instead of information. When education is driven by wisdom instead of by information, students have the chance to learn by doing even before they understand what is going on (a reflection of real life). Rather than seeking to make sure that the student knows the same thing as everyone else in the same way, this shift in the starting point of education transforms the emergence of personal understanding into the beginning of a lifelong process of learning and discovery. Now, how to deal with the cliff-edge of GCSE…?

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