21 Jun 2012

If O-levels were so good, why were they abolished?

The education secretary has revealed plans to scrap GCSE exams for children in England and replace them with something akin to O-levels – which his party got rid of nearly 25 years ago.

Michael Gove, who is being accused of going back to the future and creating a “divisive” two-tier system, argues that English schools already have two tiers of examinations, with many “top” schools currently preferring more rigorous alternatives to GCSEs.

He told the Commons it was essential for the country that education in England should stand comparison with the best from overseas, suggesting that the current system – with six separate examining boards competing for pupils – led to “dumbing down” in what he called a race for the bottom.

What Mr Gove did not say was why, if such a qualification – due to take effect in 2014 but as yet unnamed – was considered the way forward now, given his own party had scrapped it in 1988.

The Department for Education is also remaining coy on that one, saying that it would not be commenting on information based on a leak – even though Mr Gove outlined his vision in some detail in the Commons just hours before our approach.

Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan said a “two-tier system which divides children into winners and losers at 14” was not the answer.

Teaching bodies, too, criticised the announcement – which also paved the way for scrapping the national curriculum in secondary schools, as well as creating a single examination body – describing it as “a complete bombshell”.

Education experts share many of those reservations but say the wisdom or otherwise of such a radical move will lie in the detail.

Wider-ranging exam

It was in 1988 that 37 years of O-levels came to an end, under the stewardship of education reformer Kenneth – now Lord – Baker, based on legislation begun by his predecessor, Sir Keith Joseph.

They had been introduced in the 1950s to reflect the broader curriculum available after the school-leaving age was extended, and from 1965 operated alongside the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), which was aimed at 14-to-16-year-olds of lesser ability.

But by the mid-1980s their perceived shortcomings led the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher to replace O-levels with an even wider-ranging exam.

Now Mr Gove is being accused of taking English education back to a byegone era, when schools should be preparing children for life in the 21st century.

Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, explained: “One of the main purposes of introducing the GCSE in the 1980s was the issue of fairness.

I don’t recognise this race to the bottom. Competition is healthy Tina Isaacs

“What you had before 1988 was a system where O-levels were meant for the top 20 per cent [of pupils], and then in the mid-1960s CSEs were introduced, which were meant for the next 40 per cent, so covering 60 per cent of the population.

“The school-leaving age was raised to 16 and you had a lot of people talking about the inherent unfairness of having these two separate qualifications, (in) which ostensibly the lower end of one (CSE grade 1) was equivalent to a C grade at O-level. But nobody believed that – including employers.”

Dr Isaacs said the test of the new qualification was whether it, too, would be aimed at a narrow band at the top end of the academic scale for 14-year-olds, and whether high achievement in the alternative parallel qualification would be considered a lesser feat.

“I don’t know whether there is going to be any overlap (between the top of the lower qualification and the higher one). But the very fact that they are going to be called different names means someone presented with that qualification will already know that his or her teacher decided that he or she was not capable of doing the O-level.

“Within GCSEs there are two levels, but if someone this year comes away with a GCSE in maths grade C, no-one would know whether they got that from a foundation paper or from a higher-tier paper.”

Grade inflation

Dr Isaacs, a former head of regulation for 14-to-19-year-olds at exam regulator Ofqual, acknowledged that there was a need to reform the GCSE, which she admitted had become easier to pass.

“It does happen over time,” she said. “Teachers get better at teaching to the test; students get far more savvy about what is going to be in the test because Ofqual and the awarding bodies get much more transparent.

“All of these things can lead to grade inflation – which happens at universities, too, incidentally.”

But she questioned why a new exam needed to be created to address the issue.

Dr Isaacs also questioned the need for a single examining board, saying: “I don’t recognise this race to the bottom. I think that competition is healthy.”

Mr Gove also faces scepticism from within his own party and anger from his coalition colleagues.

Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the education select committee, said: “Just a year ago the government was ramping up its new GCSE target, and now a year on we are having this change to back-to-the-future O-levels,” he said.

“How exactly will a move back to traditional O-levels and some as yet unspecified other form of examination for lower-performing pupils help close the gap between rich and poor?”

Meanwhile, it seems Mr Gove may not have been sharing his crib notes with all his colleagues.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told Channel 4 News the first he knew of Mr Gove’s new policy was when he read about it in the papers. Speaking at a summit in Rio, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:

“This was self-evidently not policy that has either been discussed or agreed within the coalition Government.” He added: “I’m not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap.”