Nick Clegg and Michael Gove today announced a reform of secondary education in which GCSEs will be replaced by the English Baccalaureate.
From details released to date, the reform appears to focus on changing the structure of the examination process in secondary schools. But it appears to avoid changing the incentives that are currently in the system – namely those that incentivise schools to push themselves up league tables, rather than incentivising a focus on what pupils most need for the world of work, which means good results in Maths and English in particular.
Our briefing note on educational attainment published last week re-emphasised the attainment gaps between cities with strong economies and those with weak economies. When looking at the number of pupils gaining 5A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English – which are vital to gaining future employment - there was a 12 percentage point gap between buoyant and struggling cities in 2010/11, a gap which has persisted for some time.
A key issue here is how schools respond to incentives set by the system. Our research suggests that in cities with weak economies in particular there has been a strong emphasis on so-called ‘softer’ subjects and to focus on the D-C grade borderline in recent years. Doing this improved schools’ overall pass rates. But it leaves question marks over whether young people are gaining the qualifications that will help them most in the labour market.
Announcing a replacement to the GCSE is the next big reform for the education sector. But the changes need to engage with the fact that schools respond to incentives, and incentives currently are mis-aligned, despite some recent changes to the measurement of school performance.
The Government must avoid simply changing the qualifications without changing the way that school performance is rewarded. Schools need to be incentivised to focus on subjects that will make a difference to the long term employment outcomes of their pupils rather than simply their position in next year’s league tables. It could make a big difference to the prospects of young people across the country.