Axing the assessment of both speaking and listening from English GCSE and practical skills from science A level risks making the qualifications “less relevant”, a business leader has warned.
Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), has also said that key areas such as careers information, advice and guidance (IAG), and pre-16 vocational routes have been “all but ignored” for too long.
Speaking at the Royal Society last week, Ms Hall said that the government’s examination and qualification reforms “started off with the right instincts” and that progress has been made to install more rigour into the system.
However, she continued: “The government needs to do more to make its reforms work. And we hope that this will happen. Business wants to work with the government on education reform, but key areas such as careers advice and pre-16 vocational routes have for too long been all but ignored.
“Frankly it is not enough to just devolve responsibility to headteachers and to toughen exams. A clear vision, not yet realised, is needed to encourage a complete cultural change; without it we run the risk of reforms to the system falling flat.”
Ms Hall said there was a notable skills gap, with many of the CBI’s members reporting difficulties in hiring “the right people”.
She explained: “Businesses in key sectors – such as manufacturing, engineering, digital and science – are reporting ever-increasing skills gaps. And at a time when youth unemployment rates are reaching almost 17 per cent, this disparity is simply unacceptable.”
Ms Hall stressed the importance of providing young people not just with academic achievement but also the “attitudes and behaviours” to succeed in life – something the CBI has previously called on government to prioritise.
In 2012, the CBI’s report First Steps, criticised the education system for having become an “exams factory” and called for a renewed focus on creating “rounded and grounded young people” with the skills and behaviours business needs.
In her address, Ms Hall echoed these themes and appealed to the new secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, to “embrace this opportunity to effect a much-needed transformation”.
She repeated the warnings in the First Steps report that UK education policy had become “fixated on teaching to the test to pass exams in schools, and exam reform a panacea from government”.
She said: “In the report therefore we asked for young people to be given both academic or vocational subject knowledge, and the attitudes and aptitudes to set them up for success in both.
“That clarity, supplied so well in the best systems around the world, was absent from our system, and still is – to a greater or lesser extent. We wanted the government to continue to empower headteachers, and give them some support through a new outcomes statement, and for Ofsted reform to mirror this.”
However, while welcoming the recent debate about the role of “character education”, Ms Hall said there was “still much to do”.
Ms Hall also called for government agencies to be used to achieve this goal. She said Ofsted should ensure that academic progress and the development of character are being prioritised by schools and also called upon Ofqual to reverse some of its decisions over examination reform, labeling some of the changes as “simply wrong”.
She explained: “Dropping the assessment of speaking and listening skills from English GCSE, and removing the assessment of practical skills from science A levels, has meant that qualifications, while arguably more rigorous, now risk being less relevant.
“The answer to suspicions regarding the marking of practical work is not to just abolish the test, but to ensure the marking gets better.”
She added: “This is why we remain instinctively opposed to these changes and today call on Ofqual to change its course.”
Elsewhere, Ms Hall called for more business engagement with schools, and urged the government to bring back work experience for students in years 10 and 11.
She said: “This would provide a powerful incentive to schools to build links with employers, and send a clear message to parents and to the business community that preparing young people for work is part of what a successful school and college system must deliver.”
Ms Hall’s criticism of careers advice comes as the National Careers Council last week published a damning report highlighting a huge variation in careers guidance provision for young people across the country (click here for SecEd's report on this).
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that the CBI was “spot on in its criticism of Ofqual’s changes to qualifications”.
She continued: “Dropping speaking and listening from the English GCSE and practical work from science A levels was a detrimental step which will not improve young people’s skills or employability. It is unsurprising it has had no support from employers, learned bodies or the teaching profession.
“When will Ofqual listen to educational experts and to employers, and design qualifications which assess both knowledge and skills, and their application?
“It is good to hear the CBI calling for young people to be given both academic and vocational knowledge. And we are pleased the CBI has highlighted the lack of good careers advice, which this government has made worse by dismantling the support that was available.”