Michael Gove must pay notice to skills, says former Blair education adviser

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A guiding figure behind Tony Blair's education reforms has warned Michael Gove against becoming too obsessed with exams and ignoring skills in favour of teaching children facts.

A system that focuses on drilling children through exams risks stifling creativity, according to Sir Michael Barber, head of the delivery unit under Tony Blair.

Gove has spoken of his admiration for Singapore, where children are streamed into separate bands based on ability.

In an article for the Guardian, Barber warned: "At the very moment when Gove is looking east, the east is looking west."

Leaders in Asian countries realise that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative, Barber argued. "It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators. They see that mastery of the basics, while essential, is not enough. They understand too that while exams are important, the obsession with them among parents can be dangerous."

About 658,000 16-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their GCSE results yesterday. Experts have suggested results may reach a plateau this year as exam boards come under increased pressure to curb grade inflation.

In his article, Barber, who is now an adviser to education business Pearson, writes: "The educational challenge for Pacific Asia is to encourage greater diversity and individuality by building on their undoubted high standards in the basics. For Michael Gove, it is to match Pacific Asia's standards in the basics – which really are basic – while also developing the capacity to innovate evident in the US."

There is increasing concern that the system now is inadequate as it allows children to drop English and maths after 16.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has called for students to continue studying these core subjects after GCSE. He said: "We need to go further on English and maths. We are examining this as part of the policy review, requiring some English and maths learning between the ages of 16 and 18."

Labour has suggested creating a new post-16 qualification in maths that is short of a full A-level, in an attempt to encourage more students to study the subject.

Twigg called for a strengthening of vocational education, saying Britain needed to learn from countries like Germany that "have succeeded in giving practical subjects the kind of status they haven't had in this country".

A Department for Education spokesman said the government was transforming vocational education, citing the expansion of University Technical Colleges, the creation of studio schools and the funding of what he described as "the biggest apprenticeships programme our country has ever seen".

The Institute for Fiscal Studies called for a "radical rethink" of GCSEs on Wednesday, saying that England is unusual in having a school leaving exam at age 16.

"Now that the vast majority stay on past 16 to do further qualifications, there must be some question over the role of a set of exams which may signal to some that leaving at 16 is expected, particularly in the context of government policy to raise the 'education participation age' to 18."

GCSEs are also used to hold schools to account for their performance, the paper says, and is one of the measures used by universities when making offers to students.

But it adds that other accountability measures could be used in league tables.

"It would also be odd to justify retaining GCSEs on the basis they are used for university admissions," the paper argues.

"Currently, the majority of children don't go to university and other reforms could improve the flow of information to admissions tutors, such as entrance exams or running the application process after A-level results have been published."

It concludes: "Perhaps an even more radical rethink of the role of GCSEs and the structure of the public examination system is called for if we are to ensure that these exams serve a valid purpose and young people are best served for the future."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jeevan Vasagar, education editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 22nd August 2012 21.20 Europe/London

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