Why Gove is wrong about O Levels: Lessons from the past

Anthony Steed

The news that Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is considering scrapping the current GCSE qualifications and introducing more ‘academically rigorous’ qualifications has been met with no little derision by many in the teaching profession. Mr Gove’s justification for these changes seems based upon a notion that the current GCSE’s have been ‘dumbed down’ and that much of the improved performance identified in examination statistics originates from an inverse relationship between the difficulty of examinations and students attainment – pupils aren’t getting better, exams are getting easier.

The debate over whether this notion is borne out by fact is one that is on-going and extremely difficult to assess. The world is a very different place today compared to the 1970’s, with a labour market that requires a different set of skills. Advances in technology mean that both the skills and knowledge we would require young people to possess by the time they leave school and the way in which they access this information have changed.

Leaving this debate to one side, the author is in agreement with Mr Gove regarding the need to provide our students with more rigorous and challenging qualifications. This agreement does not amount to an acknowledgement of the ‘dumbing down’ assertion referred to earlier, but rather an agreement in principle that challenging qualification will drive improvements in the education of young people. If 22% of 16 year olds are achieving an A* in Mathematics it would seem to suggest that a good proportion of these students are not being sufficiently challenged by the current syllabus. As teachers and students become more savvy about how to achieve the top grades, inevitably a larger proportion of the results will bunch towards the top end – just under 70% of students achieved an A*-C grade in GCSE examination. This makes distinguishing between the achievements of these students evermore difficult and, inevitably, devalues the qualifications themselves.

If we take the chart below, which shows the distribution of GCSE results in 2011, this assertion becomes even more evident. Results are heavily skewed to the left. With seventy per cent gaining at least a C grade and nearly half get a B or above, and nearly a quarter get an A or above. The red line represents what the distribution should be and the yellow line is the reality.

This cannot be right. For GCSE results to have any meaning at all, then surely most entrants should be getting an average mark (C or D); in 2011 more entrants got A* – B than got C – D.

In this climate it seems only right that we consider how students can be stretched to their benefit. However, Gove’s latest conception is majestically flawed. Although details are sketchy at the time of writing, it does appear that, in a selective number of subjects, a new O Level style qualification will be introduced and that less rigorous ‘CSE’ style qualifications will be brought in for those students deemed ‘less academically able’. The inherent danger in this proposal is that a two-tiered system of education will develop. The author recognises that in the real world students have different abilities and talents. The author also recognises that an education system should stretch students of all abilities. However, I would also argue that a good education system should provide students with aspirations and that it should not put a ceiling on what can be achieved, regardless of perceived academic ability.

Arguably this is exactly what will happen with these new proposals. Fast forward to 2015 and Headteachers will have made the necessary ‘strategic adjustments’ which will likely amount to those students the school deems ‘most able’ being hived off to work towards a smaller number of O Level subjects. The abolishment of the National Curriculum will give Headteachers greater autonomy regarding which subject students study and, as they look to give these students the best possible opportunities to succeed in these new qualifications, it seems inevitable that many of the ‘optional’ GCSE subjects that enrich the curriculum for students disappear from their timetables. Meanwhile those students deemed ‘less able’ will be cattle-prodded into vocational qualifications and simpler CSE-style courses. These students, seeing that they have been overlooked for the more prestigious O Levels, will have little aspirations or expectation of further or higher education. “A Levels are for those O Level kids” they will say. Parents will treat these ‘lesser’ CSE courses as an anathema, interpreting any suggestion by the school that their child be placed onto these courses as a signal that their child is academically incapable. They will fight tooth-and-nail to ensure their child gets a place on an O level course because parents will understand better than most the implications that the alternative will have for their child’s future. Children on CSE-style courses will be branded as failures. A child’s course will be set at the age of 14 and it would be unlikely that many would find their way to an alternative.

If the vision alluded to here sounds like exaggerated hyper-bole  it may be worthwhile taking a brief look at the educational history of the UK. The two-tiered qualification system has been used before of course. The distinction between Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern, resulting from the Butler Act 1944, was implemented under exactly the same thinking – the most able should be stretched and the least able should be provided with an education that suited their ‘needs’. The reality, as highlighted by the Newsome Report 1963, was that the system had created a lost generation of young people who grew up educated in poorly funded and depressing environments with high staff turnover and poor discipline. Famously, in the year the report was published, only 318 former secondary school pupils went onto sit A Levels in the UK and none went to university.

Fast forward to 2025 and we may have our own ‘lost generation’ on our hands as Headteachers, having long ago begun to forcefully exercise their new admission powers, begin to ‘select’ the ‘right students’ for their O Level-centric school. Schools in poorer areas, with a less academically gifted demographic and perhaps a larger proportion of EAL students will have to make do with the rest. The O-Level schools will probably want to distinguish themselves from their ‘less able’ neighbours. They will probably want to re-brand themselves in a way befitting their academically elite position so that parents and children know exactly how superior they are to the rest. “We need a good name that conveys how we are different from the rest” the conversation will go….

“What about ‘Oration Schools’?” a junior minister will chip in

“Good heavens no! Those uneducated CSE-sitting parents won’t understand that word” replies the senior minister

“Er… ‘Enunciation Schools’ sir?” chips in another junior minister hopefully

“Dear God!” explodes the senior minister

“Were you two both educated in a flaming Secondary Modern!… I’ve got it we’ll call them ‘Better Schools’ – there’s no way the unwashed masses will mistake its meaning!” exclaims the satisfied senior minister.

“Sir, are you sure about this?” reply the junior ministers tentatively

“It’s just… isn’t the educational system supposed to support all children in the same way? Don’t they all deserve an equal chance?”.

“Yes indeed” replies the senior minster and then adds knowingly “But some children are more equal than others”.

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7 thoughts on “Why Gove is wrong about O Levels: Lessons from the past

  1. There are as you say very different needs for an assessment system for the C21st but I fear you are falling into the trap which thinks that the only purpose of an assessment system is to sort “wheat from chaff” and that it must form a ND curve. This is A purpose and fine if you want to ‘filter’ children in a curve which indicates their relative ability to pass these exams. However we can also see the exams as a series of criteria which we think are desirable at the age of 16 (or 18 or whenever) and so all children can achieve. We do this in many other situations in life (for example the driving test – we do not demand A* or B or D class drivers). Then you have a more difficult set of criteria for higher stages. I think we need to challenge the “filtering” mindset.

  2. Interesting point. However I think its difficult to move away from a filtering midset when making summative assesments. Even in you were to put students on different courses and just have a pass/fail this still amounts to filtering doesn’t it? As long as we are required to certify the amount a child has learned we will need to filter in this way i think?

  3. I’m not sure if this is relevant but…when I was a teenager (a long time ago!) I was forced to do Maths O level. I knew I hadn’t got a hope of passing, so I asked if I could do a CSE instead, and was told, “no, because it lowers the tone of the school to have pupils doing CSEs’. Nothing like being honest, is there!!!

    • thats interesting and confirms what I suspected. truth is that whatever noises the DofE and schools make about CSE’s being suitable for some children (and sometimes they will be right of course), parents and the kids themselves will inevitably see them as inferior qualifications, as will potential employers and universities.

  4. Interesting and very likely scenario. But I’m not even sure that there should be agreement on “regarding the need to provide our students with more rigorous and challenging qualifications”. Even here, we have historical parallels. The one I suggest (far too little known in the ed world) is the Chines imperial examination system that ran for over a thousand years until it was abolished in 1905.

    This is credited with a huge increase in the competence and success of China’s public administration that was for a long time the envy of the world (the name “mandarins” for civil servants comes from it). All it took was setting the exams and giving them prestige – an educational system sprang up around it. The exams were grueling and truly only the most exceptionally gifted could pass. More then 90% of candidates failed (many multiple times and one such failure resulted in hallucinations that led the to the Taiping rebellion which killed more people than WWI). On the surface, a more meritocratic institution could not be imagined (except for excluding women). And it arguably worked. Until it didn’t. The exams became too rigorous and completely removed from the needs of governance.

    I would argue that we are on the cusp of having far too rigorous and far too irrelevant exams. Sure they cover things in the real world (and not just interpretation of Confucian teachings and calligraphy) but in fact they only challenge the ability to take exams. There is no benefit to having more of that (and comparisons with China or Korea in tests are meaningless).

    I would agree if you said that we need to provide our students with more challenging educational environments and more opportunities in rigorous engagement with interesting subjects. But the moment you try to standardize this through exams, you end up with one result only! Teaching to the exam. And sure that is challenge. But hardly one we need to waste time and money on.

    • Thanks for the fantastically interesting response Dominik. I must confess that I had never come across that particular example, however in principle I am in agreement with you. Teaching to the exam is now an inherent problem with the current system, particuarly with the enhanced accountability and the pressures that accompany this model. Any ‘higher minded’ thoughts that teachers might have regarding education tend to be ignored in favour of the bottom line – examination results. Perhaps if the models of accountability were removed this would partially solve this problem? However, as attractive as your ideas sound I think society has an imperative to ‘filter’ students (see previous post). The problem appears to be that we seem to have equated a good exam result with good learning. As a teacher myself I have seen first hand how students who achieve fantastic results in exams leave school with little or no life-long learning skills such as the ability to think laterally or take initiative. Unfortunately these ‘soft skills’ are very difficult to measure and so tend to be ignored

  5. I understand the imperative to filter students. But we all know how useless that is. I propose a thought experiment: Imagine that without telling anyone, at every stage, instead of using real scores, we would assign results of general sorting exams randomly. What would happen? There might be some impact on the next stages in the schooling system but I think within society, nobody would notice. There’s enough randomness in the system already. (This obviously wouldn’t apply to professional and vocational exams – or at least parts of them.) My conclusion is not to make current exams more rigorous but less so.

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