Back to O-levels?

I’m sure most people have seen Gove’s latest bright idea

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162369/Michael-Gove-plans-scrap-dumbed-GCSEs-bring-O-Levels.html

The man persists in thinking he can turn the clock back to some idyllic educational past, when all pupils spoke fluent Latin from the age of 11 and could recite the complete works of Shakespeare from memory whilst performing a triple integral in their head.  To any politicians who might chance on this – look away now, because I’d hate to spoil things for you by introducing some realism. But for everyone else – I’ll let you into a secret. It was never like that.

Firstly, were O-levels really that brilliant? What is so great about learning a load of quotes from your English Literature texts, rather than being able to consult the text in the exam – is just memorizing stuff that praiseworthy?  Certainly Tory politicians often seem to think there is much inherent virtue in memorizing, be it poetry, dates, formulae or quotes. One is reminded of Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind, with his obsession with filling his charges to the brim with facts.

Now I am not going to deny that a certain amount of learning by heart is desirable – like many other teachers, I moan about my pupils forgetting things that I feel ought to be in their memories. But applying knowledge and using the tools available are more important skills – particularly given the ready availability of factual info online. If you use information, concepts, formulae etc regularly, they tend to stick in your mind anyway. Sure, having a retentive memory is great for pub quizzes (one of the benefits to me of having come through the old-style system!) – but if that’s how we want to focus our exams, then perhaps a well-trained parrot might be eligible for a grade.

Secondly, O-levels were aimed at a small proportion of the cohort – far more did CSEs, and others did no exams at all.   Getting 75% of kids to do an exam originally aimed at around the top 25% is not feasible or helpful. Ooh – I forgot! Mr Gove thinks that if we all did our job properly, all the kids would be above average – so that’s solved, then!  But seriously – it is vital to ensure that whatever we have is fit for purpose, in the sense that it provides both a foundation for further study and a measure of the skills/knowledge kids have acquired in those subjects; a self-consciously “academic” syllabus and way of examining it may well not be the optimum.

The proposed restoration of two separate systems is particularly alarming. Currently, a grade C at GCSE is regarded the same, whether obtained on the Higher or Foundation tier.  In the old days, a CSE grade 1 was supposedly equivalent to an O-level, but was not, in practice, regarded as such; you were definitely labelled by having CSEs. And of course, in some cases kids who were perfectly capable of doing O-levels ended up doing CSEs because the rest of the class was.

Now I’m sounding like an apologist for GCSEs aren’t I?  I certainly don’t think they’re perfect, as I’ve said on here before, and yes, I would like a bit more academic rigour in some places. But we’re in dire danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This could potentially become one of the biggest obstacles to all those admirable goals of raising aspirations, increasing social mobility and levelling the playing field.

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