This week’s GCSE celebrations – as with the A-level ones last week – will be muted somewhat by the lack of opportunities facing young people after they digest their results. Undergraduate places for UK students may have been up by 10,000 this year, but they still left many youngsters with no prospect of a university place. The youth employment market is unpromising, with many graduates struggling to find places with their degrees, and many apprenticeships and college places are hard-fought.
The lack of opportunity is an economic tragedy – and it is vital that it is addressed by the chancellor in the Spending Review, when we should finally learn what will replace the axed Future Jobs Fund, a successful programme that had begun to help young people back to work. It is also crucial that universities have a sustainable funding system when the Browne review reports. But there is no reason to compound the difficulties facing young people with the annual sour scepticism about their achievements.
This year’s biggest raspberry must go to Civitas who chose to launch a full-scale assault on many vocational qualifications. They may be over-valued in the league tables, but plenty of heads will testify that in disadvantaged areas they have a vital role raising the aspirations of young people so that they then study more academic GCSEs including English and maths. But others are not immune. We are told that the ‘record pass rate’ is a sign of further dumbing down by the same people who criticise the previous government for not seeing sufficient GCSE improvement for its record investment in education.
When schools minister Nick Gibb produces his curriculum review in the autumn, it is important he doesn’t listen too much to the naysayers. He must ensure there is a strong vocational range of options not just to introduce young people to hands-on work but also to motivate them to gain further qualifications. He should allow more choice so that those who don’t want to overspecialise too soon can do the respected International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels if they wish, and allow diplomas to develop in applied subjects. And he should ensure that the curriculum allows young people to develop both the breadth of knowledge and the range of skills that will stand them in good stead at work, university or in later life.
But, this week, could we just confine ourselves to congratulating the young people who gained GCSEs and giving them the practical help and advice they need to take the next steps towards further qualifications or work?
Conor Ryan is a writer and consultant and was Tony Blair’s senior education adviser from 2005 to 2007