Michael Gove, Education Secretary recently said that:
“Heads have told us that the current league table system incentivises weak schools to push students towards soft subjects and easier exams.
Parents and students have told us that there are weaknesses with current GCSEs, which privilege bite-sized learning over deep understanding, gobbets of knowledge over real learning.
We would like to see every student in this country able to take world class qualifications, like the rigorous and respected exams which are taken, for example, by Singapore’s students.
We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are.
We want a curriculum that prepares all children for success at 16 and beyond, by broadening what is taught in our schools and in improving how it is assessed.”
Many education professionals are concerned that this heralds a return to a two tier system – which divides young people into winners and losers.
I had the unfortunate experience of sitting both O levels and CSEs at 16. I moved from a comprehensive school system to a secondary modern and grammar school system, when my family moved to a different part of the country. As I had missed around 6 months of school – I was not accepted into the grammar school but cheerfully started as a new student at my local Secondary Modern in year 10.
The school didn’t usually enter students for O levels but they made an exception for me – so I was able to take both CSEs and O levels in all of my subjects. A very flexible and responsive response at the time.
Unfortunately, the curriculum was limited and so I was only able to take 6 CSE/ O level subjects. This was because the rest of the time was taken up with vocational subjects. I remember spending every Wednesday afternoon tapping away at an enormous typewriter, for my RSA typing exam, for what felt like years.
This was well before the national curriculum – and so there was no baseline expectation of an appropriate curriculum. Something that Michael Gove may also be considering.
I was also at a slight disadvantage in that the school did not teach the O level syllabus. At all.
But …. I did get good grades in all my O levels.
However ….. I did not get one CSE grade 1 – which was meant to be the equivalent of an O level grade C.
I emerged from this experience deeply puzzled about my academic ability – it seemed to me pure luck that I had passed anything. But I can type at 45 word per minute without looking at the keyboard!
Two degrees later, I did eventually work out I was sufficiently intellectually endowed.
For me this illustrates the dangers of a two tier system in examinations.
Just a few that spring to mind are:
- Once you are labelled as an O level or non-O level candidate – you are on a path that is hard to change. This influences your perception of your potential, other people’s view of your abilities and your next steps in education, as well as your life opportunities
- Equivalencies between different types and grades of qualifications are difficult to get right – and who really wants a second-class qualification?
Young people must be challenged to achieve more where they have potential to do so and their aspirations must be harnessed to motivate and drive them forward. I really can’t see how introducing a two tier examination system enables this.
Sonia has been involved in education for over 21 years. She began her career as a teacher, and then moved into a range of middle and senior management positions in London colleges and then on to cross-borough strategic roles, including working for two local authorities.
Her responsibilities have included curriculum development, strategies to raise achievement and retention, learner support, and developing whole-institution systems and processes for tutorial, enrichment and one-to-one support. Sonia can provide organisations with briefings, workshops and a range of other forms of support to organisations to support them in effective intervention and support strategies, and tutorial review at post-16 level. Please contact us for more information.