Scrap GCSEs and A-levels in favour of ‘holistic baccalaureate’ says education committee chair

GCSEs and A-levels should be scrapped and replaced with one “holistic baccalaureate” for 18-year-olds which recognises academic and technical skills and personal development, a senior Conservative MP has said.

Robert Halfon, a former skills minister who chairs the parliamentary education committee, wants to mimic the international baccalaureate, which requires students to sit subjects from six different groups and a “core” curriculum comprising elements like knowledge and creativity.

But a union leader warned of “significant practical problems which we would need to overcome” if GCSEs were to be abandoned.

College funding has been salami sliced year on year making their task almost impossible

There have been growing calls for GCSEs to be scrapped since the participation age for education and training was raised to 18 in 2015, meaning far more students stay in full-time education beyond the age of 16.

In a speech to the Edge Foundation on “a 21st century education system”, Mr Halfon will say that “dry rote learning for exams is not the way forward and GCSEs have had their day”.

He said an IB-style qualification for 18-year-olds in England would “act as a genuine and trusted signal to employers and universities of a young person’s rounded skills and abilities”.

“Schools would then be measured on two things – completion of the baccalaureate at 18 and the destinations of their pupils in the years after leaving, with apprenticeships explicitly counted as a gold standard destination,” he will say.

The speech will coincide with the release of new polling by YouGov, which shows 73 per cent of parents in England and Wales believe there is too much emphasis on exam grades achieved at secondary school.

“We must remember that since 2015 all young people have been required to participate in some form of education and training up to 18,” Mr Halfon will say.

“Yet GCSEs remain just as much the high stakes tests that they were when many young people finished their education at this age.”

He will add that the “crucial role” of FE has “been largely overlooked” as the sector has been “subjected to decades of ‘initiativitis’ leaving it without a clear direction, meanwhile funding has been salami sliced year on year making their task almost impossible”.

Mr Halfon will call on the government to “take the opportunity to fundamentally reimagine this phase of education”, and carry out a simple data-led “progress check” at 16, instead of high-stakes exams that “drive so much perverse behaviour”.

Under the international baccalaureate diploma programme, 16 to 19-year-olds follow a curriculum made up of six subject groups; language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics and the arts.

The programme, currently used in just 112 schools in the UK, also has three core elements; theory of knowledge, creativity, activity and service, or “CAS”, and an extended essay.

Scrapping GCSEs would clearly constitute a significant change

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there was “a lot of merit to the idea of scrapping GCSEs and having a single set of exams for 18-year-olds”, but warned of “significant practical problems which we would need to overcome”.

“GCSEs are a product of a different era when many young people left education at the age of 16, but this is no longer the case, and young people are now expected to remain in full-time education or training until the age of 18.

“It would therefore make a great deal of sense to replace GCSEs with some sort of light-touch assessment which would help determine post-16 routes rather than persisting with high-stakes GCSEs. Young people could then take qualifications at 18 tailored around their onward progression into higher education, apprenticeships and careers, and which could include a mixture of technical and academic subjects.”

Mr Barton said GCSEs placed students under “a great deal of pressure”, and said Mr Halfon was right to ask questions about “whether there is a better way”.

“Scrapping GCSEs would clearly constitute a significant change, and many practical issues would have to be addressed around any new system for progression between schools, sixth forms and colleges, but he is right to initiate the debate.”

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  1. The lack of any strategy or plan seems staggering. Mr Halfon now throws another hand grenade into the education pathway that seems to be dysfunctional for those aged 5-22 years.
    GCSEs and A-levels are bedding in new reforms, new syllabi, new grading, more demanding content etc.
    T-levels and apprenticeship initiatives are constantly talked about but their progress is a bumpy ride.
    Mr Halfon is a supporter of UTCs, yet numerous have closed soon after opening unable to cut the mustard, and the majority of those inspected by Ofsted have received less than Good grades. Studio Schools are closing like there is no tomorrow. Academies spring up, MATs appear, FE colleges merge and become mega, multi site organisations often very large distances apart.
    The University sector is currently taking a hammering across the board, and quite rightly so.

    I quote from the recent Cambridge Independent weekly newspaper – ‘Cambridge’s newest primary school will be dedicated to STEM subjects when it opens on the Wing development’ ‘the focus of the curriculum on STEM subjects reflects the business environment of Cambridge’.

    This Cambridge initiative is happening as Mr Halfon proposes students, at 16, only receive a light touch data-led ‘progress check’ as a replacement for GCSEs, followed by a broad based 16-19 curriculum.
    Teachers and students will love it, flogging a ‘dead horse’ when students have decided they aren’t interested and don’t have an aptitude in several areas of study. That should ensure poor general attendance and high persistent absence, and disastrous outcomes, especially if all the content is put in to one accumulated score/grade.

    How will the Cambridge style generation fit in, 10+ years on, having focused on a STEM curriculum since the age of 5/6?!

    How helpful is it for the privately educated Mr Halfon to make these statements, even if there is some room for further debate?
    This is in isolation to all the current initiatives being developed/implemented, and without a clear strategy for how it fits in to the broader picture.
    It looks like another MP is seeking publicity by proposing radical changes, rather like predecessors Lord Baker and Michael Gove!