Gove's crazy O Level plans
22 Jun 2012
At first I just didn't believe the headlines. It must have been the usual political spin: Michael Gove's advisers trying to suck up to Tory traditionalists by emphasising a return to 1950's -style education. Usually, on closer examination, the policy proposals are not quite as daft as the headlines initially suggest.
But it seems this time, Mr Gove really means it. He really does seem to be planning a return to O Levels in the sense of one exam system for the most academically able and another for everyone else. This is dangerous stuff.
Remember, of course, that the GCSE is already a tiered exam, so students are entered for differentiated papers according to their predicted grades. But they key thing is that they are all doing the same type of examination, with the same name. There is no suggestion that some exams are less equal than others.
Origin of O Levels
By contrast, the old O Level and CSE system was just that. O Levels were introduced in 1951 for the most able 20% (at the time roughly the proportion that might be aiming to stay on for A level studies). As it became plain that having no school-leaving examination of the great majority of pupils meant many of them were wasting their last few years at school, lacking motivation to study, the CSE was introduced in 1965. It was aimed at the next 40% of the ability range.
In theory a Grade 1 CSE was the equivalent of an O Level pass. In reality, they were never given parity of esteem. So much so that many Secondary Modern schools quite rightly took the decision to enter their more able pupils for the O Level. Some students were entered for both and - unexpectedly - did better at the supposedly harder O level. This was because schools put greater effort into teaching the O Level because they felt it mattered, unlike the CSE.
Apples and pears
As late as 1980-81, the proportion of 16 year-olds achieving 5 or more good O Level passes was just 25%. Today the proportion achieving 5 GCSEs at Grades A*-C is 58%. This does not automatically mean that GCSEs are easier than O levels - as some claim - as that is like comparing apples and pears. The O Level was norm-referenced, in other words only a set percentage could pass each year. That was because the exam was devised primarily as a filter to winnow out candidates for the next stage of education, namely A Levels. The GCSE, by contrast, is criterion-referenced: achieve the standard and you get the grade, however many other students achieve it that year.
It is equally facile to compare O level question papers with GCSE questions, since they are based on different syllabi and, more importantly, the GCSE has tiered papers, with question of different levels of difficulty according to the grades students are likely to achieve.
Now, to return to Gove's proposals, there may possibly be a case for making GCSEs more academically demanding. That would be reasonable if the exam is no longer providing the differentiation between pupils that is required for the next stage of education or for employers. After all, what is the point of an examination: in part it is to show what a student can do, and in part it is to differentiate between students.
But to go back to a discredited system of two different exam systems - one for the bright and one for (to quote from the reports of the leaked plans) 'the less intelligent - is just crazy.
One of the great successes of the GCSE - which remember was introduced by a Conservative government - was that it has shown itself to be motivating to several generations of students. Since it was introduced staying-on rates at school have risen fast, as has entry to university. Even those who insist this is all the result of dumbing-down, must surely see some benefit in students staying-on longer, taking more qualifications, and being motivated to undertake further and higher education?
There have been signs for some time that Michael Gove has been itching to go his own radical way on education reform, wanting to making his political name and perhaps further leadership ambitions. From the start, he showed no signs of wanting to listen to alternative views or even to the experienced counsel of his own civil servants.
His haste is alarming. Gove wants the new O Levels to start within two years. When GCSEs were introduced it took a whole decade from the moment a Labour government set up a specialist committee to investigate reform until introduction under a Conservative government. Rushing in to exam reform has almost always been shown to be a costly - and damaging - mistake. The disruption to schools and to teaching will be enormous.
What is so sad about all this is that we had the basis for a sound set of evolutionary reforms with the Diploma proposals from Sir Mike Tomlinson. In the end, the last Labour government made a bit of a hash of them, allowing them to become too bureaucratic. But the idea of an over-arching single qualification was right. It still allowed for differentiation within that.
And, of course, a programme of purely academic qualifications is not right for all pupils. Many - perhaps all - would benefit from also taking more practical or vocational courses. But they must not be branded as second-class.
Test for Nick Clegg
Before the election I can recall talking to a former education advisor to David Cameron. He was adamant he did not believe in a return to the old selective system that sorted pupils into sheep and goats. 'We know it didn't work', he said. That gave me hope.
But Downing Street has given Michael Gove too much rope. Hopefully he will be reined in by Mr Cameron himself. Otherwise there is a real test for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. They must stop this nonsense. To let it go through would certainly be too high a price to pay for maintaining the coalition.