June 19: GCSEs must put business first

EVEN though the teaching profession will probably shudder at the thought of another upheaval, the call by the head of the CBI business organisation for GCSEs to be phased out, and replaced by a new-look set of exams for 14 to 18-year-olds, is a debate that needs to be held. It is nearly 30 years since O-level and CSE exams were replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in favour of the creation of a single exam that could be used to measure the academic attainment of all pupils regardless of ability.

Yet, while these changes were necessary at the time, the world – and commerce in particular – has moved on. Then computers were in their infancy and the preserve of a minority. Now they are omnipresent with computing skills as important as literacy and numeracy if youngsters are to pursue successful careers. However, as CBI director-general John Cridland makes clear today in a keynote speech, Britain now needs to follow Germany’s examples and develop far closer links between businesses and schools so that the learning undertaken by pupils can be tailor-made towards their intended career.

He is right. There has been a tendency under both Tory and Labour governments for a premium to be placed on the quantity of GCSE exams accumulated by pupils rather than the quality – and usefulness – of a young person’s education. Yet, while many will welcome this Government’s desire to place a greater emphasis on the core subjects of yesteryear, the wishes of business leaders – the future employers of school children –must not be marginalised. As Mr Cridland says, education is so crucial to the future success of the wider economy that every 14-year-old in the country should have an individual learning plan which not only stretches them but helps them to fulfil their potental. Few will disagree with this notion, other than those tired and fearful of change.

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Working incentive

Childcare must be affordable

THE contrast between David Cameron’s rhetoric on childcare during the election campaign, and today’s report on the financial implications for low-income families, could not be greater. For, while the Prime Minister made much of his promise to provide 30 hours of free childcare a week to working parents of three-to-four-year-olds, it remains to be seen how this pledge can be introduced without the Government making additional funding available – funding that has not yet been identified.

But while the Tories should be applauded for seizing the initiative on aspiration, and respecting the desire of an increasing number of mothers from all social backgrounds to pursue a career while bringing up their children, the matter is not as a clearcut as Mr Cameron would like. His policy is aimed at the parents of toddlers aged three and four; it will not benefit those whose youngsters do not fall within this age bracket. And it overlooks the point, made by the Child Poverty Action Group and Gingerbread charity, that the costs are beyond the reach of families on low incomes.

In many respects, this is the greater challenge facing Ministers. If they want more families to take personal responsibility, and not become an unnecessary burden to the welfare state, childcare has to be affordable and transparent rather than being left at the mercy of a policy becoming more convoluted with every new initiative. It can’t be right that some mothers pay more in childcare than they earn from a respectable job at a local university. Where’s the incentive? It is the key question which still needs to be answered.

Winds of change

Onshore subsidies to be scrapped

NOW THE Tories are no longer constrained by the Lib Dems, the winds of change are blowing through Whitehall and are epitomised by the decision to bring forward the date when subsidies for onshore wind farms will be scrapped. Yet, while this will appease backbench Tory MPs, this must not preclude the Government from investing in new power plants – including those offshore wind farms being developed off the East Coast – to preserve energy supplies in an uncertain world. Energy policy is too important to be left to the whims of the “not in my back yard” brigade; it requires strong political leadership and long-term planning.

However the problem with those wind turbines that have been erected in Yorkshire communities is not just the financial cost; it is their wider efficiency, or lack of, and how the benefits do not correlate with their visual impact on much cherished local landscapes. It is a conundrum that still needs to be reconciled, even though subsidies have come to a standstill (just like some wind farms) for now.