Business leaders criticise slipping standards of ‘exam factory’ schools

Business leaders have called for a radical rethink of England’s schools system, including abolition of GCSEs at 16 and a break from the “exams factory” of the national curriculum and league tables. Ahead of its annual conference, beginning on Monday, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has released a manifesto of proposed changes to every layer of the school system, from pre-school to 18. This is from the Guardian…

Employers sought school-leavers who did not just possess a clutch of exam passes but were “rounded and grounded”, said John Cridland, the CBI director general. Emphasis on exams and league tables “has produced a conveyor belt, rather than what I would want education to be, an escalator,” he said.

“It’s very rigid and it emphasises the typical and the average. It doesn’t necessarily well support the 30% who struggle and doesn’t necessarily well support the 10% who are flying.”

Given plans to raise the leaving age to 18, Cridland said, it made less sense to have GCSEs at 16 followed by A-levels two years later. “If we’re all committed to raising the education leaving age to 18 over the next few years, then the tests at 16 are hugely important but they’re not the end point. They’re a staging post.Sometimes the entire debate seems to be about our exams at 16,” he said.

“The logic of what we’re saying is that over time, the critical moments become 13 to 14 and then 18. Thirteen to 14 because of the choices people make, which school they go to and what subjects they study, and then four years of learning which culminates in the choice of university. Sixteen is important, but it’s not an end point.”

In its report, First Steps, the CBI argues that school standards have slipped in comparison to those internationally after three decades of policy focused on “narrow measures of performance” such as league tables and exam passes. Matching the best standards in Europe would boost GDP growth by about an extra 1% a year.

The CBI’s prescription for change is varied, ranging from better childcare in disadvantaged areas to an overhaul of the primary school curriculum and a revised A-level system also offering “gold standard” vocational qualifications for those less suited to academia. The report calls for teachers to be allowed to tailor lessons to pupils’ aptitudes and interests.

“The best teachers we’ve talked to are rebels against the system,” said Cridland. “They have had to break out of the straitjacket of the curriculum which has stopped them delivering the sort of education our young people need.”

New technology made this possible, he added. “You can have Brian Cox beamed onto a whiteboard to teach science interactively. In years gone by with one teacher, doing his or her best with chalk and talk in front of 30 kids in the 1950s, there was no alternative. Now there is: laptops, tablets, whiteboards, beamed-in satellites. There’s much more we can do.”

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