Record number of exam passes but is the system working?

Celebrations for parents and teenagers this week as the number of GCSE passes rose to record levels - MT witnessed the whoops of joy, tears and bear hugs of the girls leaving the school opposite. But not every one is feeling so celebratory. Typically, the Daily Mail is first off the blocks to criticise the fact that 50% of 16-year-olds failed to achieve five passes at A-star to C, including English and Maths, further pointing out that more pupils are leaving school with little or no qualifications after the overall pass rate fell for the first time in four years.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

MT has worries about our exam system but we're growing a little weary of the annual sneer-fest that greets kids who feel they've done well. Belittling their achievements is pretty unfair - all they've done is play the game into which they are forced. And the game is a desperate one. After that now notorious promise back in 1997 that the focus would be on ‘education education education', New Labour dare not see a fall back in the annual quality of exam results. It has to be onwards and upwards year after year and the figures now have the macabre spectacle of the celebration of Stalinist Five Year production targets.

The ritual condemnation of exam grade devaluation combined with a general sense that Einstein would have struggled to achieve five A-stars back in his teens is not really getting us anywhere. But the problem will not go away especially if large numbers of top schools wind up going off-piste and dropping GCSEs and A-levels altogether because they have little or no value for their pupils.

So there are problems at the top end of the education ladder but what about the bottom? Business urgently needs reassurance that the skills pipeline is being filled with the right kind of qualified labour. In the words of David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, ‘The world has changed dramatically. There are no longer opportunities for unskilled work in factories. We are a service economy and that requires skills including English and maths.' Indeed, recent figures show not only that 27% of 16- and 17-year-olds are unemployed, but 500,000 under-24s are jobless. What's the education system done for them?

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