Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.


Andrew Haldenby is a great reformer of public services, but his article on this site last week as part of its education series was more reactionary than reformist. He put forward an Aunt Sally argument that broadening our curriculum equals diminishing standards. This is not the case.

In a recent speech for The Edge Foundation, I said that knowledge and skills must go hand in hand. Skills rely on knowledge for a foundation of understanding, and knowledge needs skills to enable its practical and useful application. I don’t want a binary distinction between technical and academic education. This is about creating a comprehensive and holistic curriculum where both sides are equally valued.

It’s hard to comprehend why Andrew would believe that an expanded curriculum culminating in a comprehensive baccalaureate at 18, the new education leaving age, would result in a dilution of standards. I would not be proposing the idea if I did not believe that it would achieve the opposite.

Our education system should prioritise producing well-rounded young adults with creative, practical and academic achievements, not focused on a narrow academic curriculum, churning out battery hens to keep up with the league tables.

The Problem

Under our current system, over a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do. Around nine million of all working aged adults in England have low basic skills and, according to the World Literacy Foundation, a staggering one in four UK adults may be functionally illiterate and/or innumerate.

The Department for Education’s most recent Employer Skills Survey identified two sets of skills shortages in our economy: technical and practical skills, and people and personal skills. The tech industries alone have skills vacancies of more than 600,000, and we have an annual need for over 200,000 engineers qualified at Level 3 or higher. Skills shortages have already cost the economy £6.33 billion over the past 12 months and the gap is quickly widening. Our traditional knowledge-focused education system does not address these needs.

Furthermore, not only do we need to fill the skills shortages of today, but the UK must also look ahead to prepare ourselves for the ‘march of the robots’. In 2015, The Bank of England found that up to 15 million UK current jobs are at risk of automation. There are particular challenges for young people – PwC has estimated that 46 per cent of jobs done by young men are at risk of automation.

Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, reflects that, “It is always much easier to
educate people for our past rather than their future” and goes on to say that, “our schools today are going to be our economy and society tomorrow, and the gap between what our society demands and what our exams systems test […] is becoming wider”.

If our current system is so wonderful, why are we producing such a deficit of skills? And why do employers tell us that young people are not entering the workplace equipped with the tools they need to succeed?

Our Current System

Entries in computer-based subjects fell by 17,000 between 2016 and 2018 and there was a 57 per cent decline in Design & Technology GCSE entries between 2010 and 2018. Furthermore, GCSE attainment/Attainment 8 score in state schools dropped from 49.9 in 2016 to 46.3 in 2017.

Andrew references Alison Wolf’s vocational education report to argue that a change from GCSEs would reduce standards. However, this is a subjective reading for several reasons.

First, the report has been quoted out of context. In her opening summary, Professor Wolf makes it clear that, “conventional academic study encompasses only part of what the labour market values and demands: vocational education can offer different content, different skills, different forms of teaching”.

Second, the report reflects on poor provision of the past, but it also acknowledges that, “none wanted to leave things as they are; nor did they believe that minor changes were enough”.

Third, this report was written eight years ago and Professor Wolf has since made numerous interventions about how “stupid” it is that “technical and vocational provision [has been left to] languish”, and how “England’s obsession with university degrees is increasingly at odds with labour market demands, with good financial management, and with social justice”.

I will happily acknowledge the alphabet spaghetti of vocational qualifications we have had in the past, and it has not always been clear what value they each held or how rigorous they each were. But, just because previous incarnations haven’t been successful, that does not mean we give up. We need to find a solution and, I believe, that a wider curriculum until education leaving age is the answer.

Learning from the World

Most other countries don’t have ‘big’ exams at sixteen – they may have a couple of exams for core subjects, but they carry far less significance than our GCSEs do. There is already an International Baccalaureate taught in more than 149 nations, recognising academic and technical skills together with the young person’s personal development. According to Professor Sandra Leaton of UCL, Malta and Ireland are the only two places to use a system like ours.

A lot can be learned from other education systems around the world. In Finland, young people transfer to secondary school at age 13 to study a broad curriculum including art, music, cooking, and carpentry amongst many other subjects. Formal grading is very limited and there are no high-stake tests at this stage of their schooling. Importantly, the curriculum remains very flexible and employability skills are taught too.

To provide a direct comparison, OECD 2015 Pisa league tables rank Finland 5th for science where the UK ranks 15th, 13th for maths where the UK ranks 27th, and 4th for reading where the UK ranks 22nd.

The Solution

If our current system was a complete success, I could understand why Andrew would be such a traditionalist and desperate to preserve our archaic system. However, with the UK’s lacklustre placing in the 2015 OECD Pisa rankings, as mentioned above, the system is far from perfect.

This movement is not just about getting rid of GCSEs but developing a comprehensive and employer-led syllabus that takes students all the way through to our new education leaving age.

The Edge Foundation have proposed a rigorous baccalaureate which would retain the important foundations of English, maths, science and humanities, whilst also prioritising creative subjects like music, art and drama, and technical practices such as engineering, design and construction.

There are other objections to the upheaval that such a policy change would create. No one is suggesting that Damian Hinds should implement changes to GCSEs and A-Levels next week. All I am trying to do is give impetus to a national conversation about how our education system should prepare our young people for the future. Any decisions should be evidence-led and I am grateful to everyone who has weighed in to share their experience and ideas.

If we get this right, we can fulfil the ambition that every educationalist is working towards: providing a ladder of opportunity to everyone, no matter what their background, with jobs, prosperity and security waiting for them at the top.

So, come on Andrew, why not be a radical reformer instead of a reactionary? How about it?

31 comments for: Robert Halfon: Why our secondary school exams really do a need a radical vocational overhaul

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