A proposal that the GCSE should be adapted to become a national examination for 14-year-olds is made by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham in a report published today by the Sutton Trust, which commissioned their research comparing education systems in the 30 countries of the OECD.

Professor Smithers and Dr Robinson at the Centre for Education and Employment Research conclude that there are lessons for the new Coalition Government from international comparisons of admissions to, and the structure of, the ‘lower’ and ‘upper’ stages of secondary education.

26 of the 30 OECD countries have a clear array of pathways in the later years of schooling, spanning pre-university, technical training and preparation for employment. In the USA, Canada and New Zealand the pathways open up post school. England with its untidy mix is a conspicuous exception.  The authors say that the Government could make ‘education 14-19’ a reality by moving and adapting the GCSE to become the national examination for 14-year-olds. “This would then become the natural starting point for an array of awards taking young people in different directions. If these were sufficiently attractive, young people would want to stay on for as long as it took to gain a qualification and there would be no need for the sticks necessary to impose compulsory staying on.”

While such a major reform may be a step too far for the Government, the Sutton Trust believes that clearer educational options from age 14 onwards are needed to ensure that children from non-privileged backgrounds pursue the choices that genuinely reflect their interests and abilities.

On admissions, the authors challenge the Government to decide how they want pupils to be distributed across secondary education. Proximity to the school promotes social divisions. Countering this by balloting or random allocation would be unpopular electorally. Selection at 11 on educational merit carries a lot of emotional baggage.

They conclude that “it would not be necessary for the Government to  determine centrally if it allowed schools to set their own enrolment policies.” It could follow the example of New Zealand, (where there is unregulated choice though pupils are assured of a place in a local school) or it could go the whole hog and allow state schools the same freedoms as independent schools.

The Sutton Trust continues to believe that a national admissions framework that applies to all schools is necessary.

Responding to the report, Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“England remains an outlier on the international stage in terms of the different educational pathways offered to children during their formative years – and effectively we have differentiation by default: all too often children’s choices are dictated by the school they happen to be in, not their own talents and interests.

“Professor Smithers and Dr Robinson propose a radical solution to bring England into line with international practice: undertake national examinations at age 14 instead of age 16, and offer pupils a set of distinct and credible educational routes thereafter.”

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