It’s time to change our exam system and focus on what matters for our students

I write this as students across the country are preparing to pick up their GCSE grades, including my son. I have huge respect for them all and the hard work that they have put in to prepare and sit their exams. I wish them all the very best. My comments here are certainly not to criticise their efforts.

An article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in April struck me hard. Only three in 10 heads think GCSEs prepare pupils for work highlights recent research by Ofqual that demonstrate how poorly the core of our education system helps young people become ready for the working world.

While I wholeheartedly agree with this finding, the thing that is most shocking is that this message comes from the very heart of the established education system – Ofqual are the organisation that oversees and approves all qualifications and the headteachers are the ones who know best how to run schools and understand the impact of the work they do.   It goes even further, with Robert Halfon, the chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, calling for GCSEs to be scrapped and replaced with a baccalaureate qualification at age 18 that would recognise the academic and vocational sides of education.

Stop and think about it for a moment. A GCSE (or A-level) exam lasts between 1 and 2 hours. In that time a student is expected to sit in silence, with no reference materials and write, in pen, a series of answers covering a vast amount of knowledge they have memorised from the last two years. In what way does that prepare them for work or demonstrate the skills they will need in future employment? It simply doesn’t. Meanwhile, the stress young people are under to perform is huge, the cost of running exams is enormous and the variability in quality of marking very concerning.

If exams are not useful as preparation for working life, what about preparation for academia? Even academics have their significant doubts; a Professor from Durham University told me recently that new students with excellent exam results usually lacked the understanding of context, independence and skills to apply their knowledge to new situations needed for first year degree study.

So reform is needed. We need to focus on what’s important for young people rather than what is easy to measure by the system. I think that there’s an important place for a core academic curriculum and that should include some exam units (perhaps with reference materials rather than based on a memory test) alongside coursework units for all subjects which should account for at least 50% of the qualification. Project assignments work well in practical subjects – that can surely translate to meaningful report writing projects in English and experimental investigation in Sciences. Assessment should be carried out by teachers, with robust moderation systems. That would require a trusting of educational professionals and a change in the nature of the way schools are judged; the current performance measure system is the core reason for us being where we are.

So what about UTCs? Well, we are here to look beyond the passing of exams as the defining measure of success for individual students and a school. Being well set up for, and then finding, a meaningful career route are what really matters from education (I include in this that young people are well prepared to make a wider contribution to society as good citizens). So that is our focus.

A UTC education does three things; it delivers a core academic curriculum for knowledge understanding and preparation for further study, leading potentially to university as a route to careers. It teaches technical skills and knowledge so that future employees can contribute to industry quickly and progress technical advances. It provides a workplace education so that students are building the skills needed so that they are both highly employable and making proactive choices about their career direction. This is usually through a combination of projects, visits and placements. Crucially, they are treated as the young professionals they are and build their confidence over time to be work-ready.

And it’s working. Destinations from UTCs at age 16 and 18 are well ahead of other types of schools. At UTC South Durham we had nobody classified as NEET after they left us last year, everyone who wanted to go to university did so and we had seven times the national average of apprenticeship successes. This year we had 100% pass rate at A-level, 89% of our Engineering Tech Level grades were Distinction or better and the apprenticeship success rate is looking even higher.

We must look beyond the traditional education system which is not fit for purpose and look at what society, employers and young people really need an education system to deliver.