By Daniel Hunter

GCSEs are unfit for the 21st century, business leaders say. They argue that so much emphasis is placed on “funnelling” teenagers into make-or-break exams at 16 that schools are failing to produce the confident, rounded young people that employers want.

“What is clear to the business family is that what was right for the 20th century, may not be right for the 21st century,” said John Cridland, director-general of the CBI. “There is something about this GCSE funnel that produces a prescribed form of learning which seems to be teaching for the test, which frustrates teachers because it stops them delivering that inspirational classroom experience and you see young people being switched off.”

Most employers regarded A levels, not GCSEs, as the “gold standard”, he said, and some questioned whether the over-riding focus on exams at 16 was getting in the way of preparing for more important qualifications at 18.

His comments are a blow to the Government, which has focused on GCSEs, although it was Labour ministers who decided to raise the compulsory participation age in education, which goes up to 17 next year and to 18 in 2015.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has reinforced GCSE pass rates as the key performance indicator for schools, raising them twice and introducing a combination of GCSE subjects known as the English Baccalaureate to measure schools’ academic focus.

Last week Pearson, owner of the Edexcel exam board, called for a cap on the number of GCSEs sat by each student. And some independent school heads have called for GCSEs to be scrapped.

The CBI is likely to conclude that education standards have slipped when it publishes an analysis by its working group in the autumn.

Mr Cridland said that schools were failing the 40 per cent of children who were leaving without at least five good GCSEs. He added that 80 per cent of those who were behind the expected level in maths on leaving primary school failed to catch up by the end of secondary school.

Yet he cited one employer who recruited apprentices with five or more GCSE passes but who had to arrange remedial numeracy training for one in five of them. He that that many businesses had similar experiences.

Keith Attwood, chief executive of the technology company e2v and chairman of the CBI’s education committee, said that employers placed greater value on hiring “rounded” individuals who were able to write reports and speak confidently.

CBI leaders are wary of being seen to lecture teachers and are expected to recommend that businesses become more involved in supporting primary schools, rather than engaging with post-14 education as is more common. They are also likely to recommend that businesses do more to support the development of good teachers, such as by funding places for teachers on their company training programmes.

In addition to business leaders, the CBI working group includes Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and Helen Noble, a deputy head teacher in Coventry.

This article appeared in The Times on Wednesday, May 23

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