If Eton forms a strategic education partnership then no more exams at 16 for local princes

I was at a National Education Trust seminar yesterday hosted by the Provost of Eton College. This is the world famous independent school where Princes William and Harry studied (just down the road from their grandparents), as did the British Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Quite a quartet!

Eton College, 2004-02-14. Copyright Kaihsu Tai

The seminar discussed whether the GCSE qualification that most young people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take at age 16 is still fit for purpose almost 25 years after it first replaced O-levels and CSEs. Tony Little, the Eton Provost, had already raised this back in February.

In many ways the discussion had been preempted by the decision in September by the English Schools Minister to replace GCSEs with a proposed new English Baccalaureate Certificate. The education journalist Mike Baker should have been there to chair, but sadly died from cancer – in my last post I referred to his June blog where he produced a passionate plea against a return to O-levels – thankfully this at least has been avoided.

There was a broad view at the seminar, though not shared by 11-16 schools in less privileged areas than Eton, that we need a quiet revolution to remove all examinations at age 16 now that compulsory education in England will finish at age 17 from 2013, and at age 18 from 2015.

The counter arguments linked to the need for school accountability/student progression measures and a requirement to certificate young people who:

a) won’t continue in the same institution post 16;


b) will need more than post 16 qualifications to demonstrate to employers and universities that they are suitable entry material.

None of these seemed insurmountable particularly if a progress check is re-introduced around age 14. This would need to include the intelligent assessment of a range of developing knowledge, skills and attributes and not simply sitting students in an exam hall for 3 hours. Even the Asian Tigers are starting to see this as an unfruitful approach for their young people.

As I have blogged before, I was at another event back in June, this time full of assessment specialists, which had already seemed to reach a view that examinations at age 16 have become surplus to requirements. On Monday even the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) seemed to agree with this in an education report it published.

So where next if national assessment policy consensus is moving in the same direction?

I think the issue needs to be devolved downwards to local communities and led by schools within them, so including heads, teachers and students, in a strategic partnership with key stakeholders, but especially families and employers.

This would be perfectly in line with the Coalition’s policy of freeing up schools from centralised decision-making and bureaucracy to provide the best possible education and outcomes for all young people.

Perhaps Eton now needs to take the lead within its own fully representative local strategic education partnership.