Director general John Cridland has called on the government to signal the end to GCSE examinations before the next General Election in five years’ time.
Speaking at the Festival of Education, held at Wellington College in Berkshire last week, Mr Cridland also called for young people to be given a “real choice” in their education through the creation of vocational A levels.
He urged the government to start a full review of 14 to 18 education by the end of the summer and warned ministers that they cannot focus “on reform of exams and school structures alone”.
He said: “For too long the education debate has been a battle between two opposing camps. False choices between academic achievement or vocational skill, between the right marks or the right mentality. By 2020, I want a system that doesn’t just work for some young people but all of them.
“For too long, we’ve just pretended to have a multiple-route education system. In reality, there has been only one path the system values – GCSEs, A levels, university.
“Expecting them to wait until 16 to make a choice and then offering a restricted, unloved range of options is a social and economic own goal. I call on government to level the playing field and create vocational A levels.”
The CBI speaks on behalf of around 190,000 businesses across all sectors employing nearly seven million people and Mr Cridland went on to argue for an end to examination at 16, pointing to the fact that many countries around the world have rejected this approach as part of systems that educate up until the age of 18.
He continued: “High-stakes exams at 16 are from a bygone era, we have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we’re the oddballs.
“In France, Germany, Sweden or Japan, much of the assessment which takes place before 18 is school-based – whether exams set and administered by schools or marks based on continuous assessment. By the end of this Parliament, I want to see the date for the last ever GCSE circled in the secretary of state’s diary.
“Let’s clear the way for a new 14 to 18 curriculum, based on personalisation. We need an individualised learning plan for every young person, aiming at high-quality outcomes at 18, whether academic, vocational or a mix.”
Elsewhere, he warned that Ofsted is driving schools to act in fear of inspection rather than in the best interests of their students: “We need to assure quality throughout the process, rather than just inspecting it at the end of the production line.
“In weaker schools, fear of Ofsted drives behaviours which lead to perverse outcomes, instead of better ones. All too often, it’s only the data which matters. And in stronger schools, rebel headteachers succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. Innovation still means rebellion, and it shouldn’t.”
He said Ofsted’s reforms, announced earlier this month, were a “first step in the right direction”, but added that “reforms should go further and faster”.
He continued: “Devolving control to schools could drive innovation and personalised learning, but the inspection regime too often means that teachers and heads don’t believe in these freedoms.”
On careers advice, he told ministers that young people needed the “steer” and not just “a website” – referring to the fact that the National Careers Service only provides web and telephone – and not face-to-face – services for young people.
He said: “In Germany young people have multiple encounters with employers throughout their education, with even stronger links in vocational schools. And in Finland, yearly work experience from ages 13 to 16 comes ‘as standard’.
“Only about a third of firms we spoke to who engaged with schools have links at primary level and that’s not good enough. At secondary school, young people need careers advice when they’re 12 and 13 – before they make life-changing choices about what to study.”