In my GCSEs, we practised with O-Level papers knowing nothing that difficult would come up
It’s easy to dismiss Michael Gove’s decision to replace GCSEs with O-Levels as a “ludicrous” move. In fact, that was the exact term used by Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who accused the Education Secretary of having a rose-tinted view of the past. As the news emerged last night, the Twitterati jumped all over it. Why stop at bringing back GCSEs, they cried. What about leg warmers and fax machines?
But to completely rubbish the new plans, which will see the class of 2016 sit “explicitly harder” examinations in English, maths and the sciences, is to ignore the fact that for far too long, GCSEs have been a national disgrace.
I sat GCSE papers in 2004 and 2005, and the memories of their educational inadequacy have stuck with me ever since. I remember well being given an IT paper which asked whether it was possible for computers to have a religious experience.
Or the time I sat a past paper in Science which presented candidates with a table of what owls do over the course of the year. In the “April” row of the table, it said “breeding season”. Imagine the intellectual rigour one had to apply then, when the question paper asked “when do owls mate?”.
On a frequent basis, we would be given the syllabus as a reference guide rather than a textbook. That was the best way to play the examiners and phrase the answers the right way to ensure there was no possible instance in which marks could be taken off. Forget creativity – it was a race to the bottom. He who scored highest was he who had best revised the marking criteria.
And if you claim that the exams have been toughened up since then, you are – I’m sorry to say – deeply misguided. In the most recent French reading paper, students could obtain a mark for recognising that “piscine” means swimming pool. In media studies (an easy target, I know), pupils had to rack their brains to tell markers how “engaging and fast paced narratives”, “courageous heroes” and “exotic or glamorous locations” had contributed to the “success” of action adventure films.
Who came up with this nonsense? I’m sure the dons who set Oxford’s All Souls exam papers can sleep safely at night.
If you think this sounds like a rant from someone who scraped a few B grades at GCSE and blamed his failure on being all “artsy” and “individual”, or a tirade from someone seeking a way to further indulge themselves in the public school fantasy, then you’re dead wrong.
I was state schooled, and achieved 9A*s. But even as I sat the papers, I was aware that these grades were completely worthless. In modern foreign language and Latin classes, we would sit O-level papers as practise for the real thing, safe in the knowledge that nothing as difficult would ever appear on the real exam. In some cases, a C grade would translate to As and A*s. In those days, language papers required some understanding of the subject. Now, it’s a case of whether you’ve adequately prepared your strict vocabulary lists because – never fear – there will be nothing “off-road” on the exam.
So many pupils achieve A* grades that they offer no way for pupils to compare themselves against each other. Instead, the idea was to achieve “top fives”.
I’ll explain. If you get one of the “top five marks in the country” (i.e. by scoring 100 per cent or as close as possible), you get a special letter from the exam board. One student at my school (Liverpool Blue Coat) managed four. I was at summer school when the GCSE results were released, and one girl there from a Stoke-on-Trent comprehensive got 11A*s. But she was devastated. She had no “top fives”.
If the government fails to provide top candidates with a challenge, they will find these new – and potentially dangerous – ways to challenge themselves.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the new O-level qualifications will proffer the same garbage as GCSEs. But you would hope they’ll take the opportunity to force pupils to extend the brief, to take daring steps to secure the best grades. And for those content with a B or C, at least employers will be safe in the knowledge that they are literate and numerate.
Simply going back to the old O-levels, however, is simply not an option. They were exams designed so that a sizeable proportion of candidates failed. In this day and age, it would be foolish to burden young people who are already finding it difficult to get a job with the stain of failure. Employers will soon wise up to the fact that pupils shoved into the new CSE-style exams are less academically able, and will not give them jobs. Back in the day, failure was not so devastating: there were industries to go to, apprenticeships for those good with their hands. They formed the backbone of the economy.
No longer. So it’s all well and good for Michael Gove to challenge top candidates, and to offer universities a better way to distinguish the cream of the crop, but what about those who’ve long been forgotten? It’s no good giving them the same education, prescribing the same teaching methods, and then assigning them a worse grade than their predecessors at the end of secondary school.Tagged in: A, A-levels, education, French, gcses, Mary Bousted, michael gove, O Levels, revision, school, science, university
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