O-levels to replace GCSEs: Is Gove a Tory hero or just bonkers?

Jun 21, 2012

Education Secretary Michael Gove comes under fire for exam shake up - others say he should be PM

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EDUCATION SECRETARY Michael Gove wants to replace GCSEs with "explicitly harder" O-levels, it emerged today.

Secret documents leaked to the Daily Mail revealed plans to radically change the exam system and curriculum, with a return to the style of exams scrapped in the 1980s. The proposals included getting rid of GCSEs by September 2014, introducing a simpler qualification similar to the old-style CSEs for less-able pupils and abolishing the national curriculum.

While some have applauded Gove's ambition for "world class qualifications", others have said the plans are simply mad.

Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told The Guardian it was the education secretary's most "ludicrous" idea to date. She says: "The aim should be to get as many people as possible to the best standard they can achieve and you do not do that by dividing everyone as sheep and goats at 14."

Leighton Andrews, education minister for Wales, said bringing back the O-levels was "a bonkers way of proceeding" and announced that Wales would not be following Gove’s lead.

He told BBC Radio 5: "What we want is a qualification system that is easily understood by parents, students and people in business. I really think the right way to do these things is to review them rigorously and not to make announcements in order to capture newspaper headlines."

Scrapping GCSEs will hurt yet another generation of children, wrote Martin Belam in The Guardian. Having been in the first group of pupils to take GCSEs, Belam warns against treating pupils as "guinea pigs".

"It dismays me to think of another generation of pupils trying to prepare for their exams under the full glare of the media and political establishment," he said. "Those studying hard to take the last batch of GCSEs are being told their efforts are futile as the exams and syllabus aren't up to scratch. And those taking the new exams will have to go through the disruptive experience I had."

But Gove has at least one avid supporter. On the back of the proposals, The Daily Telegraph's Tim Stanley says Gove deserves to be Prime Minister.

Stanley says the move marks the "rejection of everything education has been about for the last few decades: dumbed down, obsessed with targets and given to grade inflation".

He predicts that Gove will emerge with "even higher prestige" among Tories, having pursued a recognisably conservative agenda while helping the disadvantaged.

But if his colleague Daniel Knowles is correct, we needn't be sending Gove to Downing Street or an asylum just yet. "I doubt very much that it will actually happen," says Knowles, "at least not on anything like the dramatic scale that the news stories imply."

He explains: "Such a big proposal will have to go through several layers of consultation, and by the time it reaches the end of that, it may be shredded – all of the scary bits torn out."

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How can it be bonkers to try to fix the wholly degraded GCSEs? Many independent schools have dropped GCSEs in favour of the iGCSE (which is more similar to the old O-level in approach).

I'm not sure how much notice the government should take of the "experts" who have brought us almost routine 7-10 A* grades. Then there's the poor attainment in maths in the sciences.

The reaction to Michael Gove's eminently sensible proposals is entirely predictable - the Guardian and the mediocre challenge-duckers who count among its readership, are pathologically incapable of rising to any challenge that might uncover the parlous state of our main-stream education examination system.

"O" levels were NOT a walkover! I was fortunate enough to benefit from a Grammar School education in the late fifties and early sixties - during the first five years of that education I absorbed a great deal of knowledge, and I had been stretched to the limits of my academic ability.

At the end of EVERY academic year we sat end-of-term exams (which, by the way, were every bit as rigorous as the "O" levels that awaited us at the end of the five year period). Sitting (and passing!) the eventual "O" levels was a stressful experience, of course, and was preceded by months of intense study including many hours of homework, both during the week (average three hours each night) and during the weekend (perhaps another four or five hours). NOBODY complained when they eventually passed those milestone exams - even if a schoolboy was obliged to leave the school without undertaking further intense "A" level study, that boy was prepared for life, due to the excellent standard of education available at the typical Grammar School.

I very much doubt that we have a sufficient calibre of individual in today's teaching "profession" as to be able to instil the necessary academic knowledge in today's school children to enable able those children to pass an "O" level of, say, fifty years ago - it would be an interesting exercise anyway.

In summary, therefore - yes, Guardian reading "educationalists", mediocre and largely unmotivated teachers and some parents are entirely predictable in their knee-jerk reactions to Mr Gove's excellent proposal - capable children will be much better served by the education system, poor teachers will be identified at a very early stage and the Guardian will have to eat its words!

I don't think it would be too hard for parents, children and people in business to understand a system where students are streamed into sitting the qualifications where they're most likely to get the highest mark, and less likely to disengage either because what's being taught is too hard for them or is not challenging enough. What needs to further happen is to pair the CSE qualification with a scheme whereby pupils can, if they choose, leave school at, say, 13 or 14 and study on a sandwich basis in workplaces. But what Gove is proposing is pragmatic enough to recognise that not everybody is academic by disposition. We need to educate kids to be able to compete with people from countries that value education appropriately.

What is this obsession with politicians arguing against a multi-tiered educational system?

We do not need a 'one size fits all' education programme - it hasn't worked. What we do need is a system where technical abilities are as valued as academic talent. Selection by ability should determine into which tier, or level children are placed. It also needs to be flexible enough for 'late developers' to be able to progress, or change accordingly. It's not perfect, but it has to be better than the current system.

Where multi-tiered systems have failed in the past is where the tier that one found oneself in, was largely predetermined by ones parents' ability to pay for better quality education. This doesn't have to be the case, so we should re-visit it, post haste and forget the dogma of the past.