Educationalists have warned this week against returning to a two-tier examination system after the Tories’ plans to scrap GCSEs were leaked.
National media interpreted the leaked document as plans for a return to the system of O level and CSE examinations that existed before GCSEs were introduced in the mid-1980s.
The leak, revealed in the Daily Mail, included the scrapping of GCSEs and the national curriculum, a “simpler” exam for the bottom 25 per cent of pupils, and plans for each subject’s exam papers to be created by just one awarding body.
Education secretary Michael Gove was called to the House of Commons on the morning of the leak. While he did not confirm the plans, he told MPs that the system “was not working” and pledged to tackle “the culture of competitive dumbing down”.
Educators have urged caution over the proposals, while Mr Gove has also been criticised for attacking GCSEs at a time when thousands of students have been sitting exams.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Mr Gove’s continual criticism of GCSEs as a ‘dumbed down’ examination is not only incorrect but also very offensive to those pupils and teachers who achieve great results every year.”
She continued: “Getting rid of GCSEs and replacing them with the old O level and CSE qualifications could easily lower aspirations and exacerbate inequalities in society. Children develop at different stages in their school career. Deciding at the age of 14 which exam route pupils take is to no-one’s benefit.”
O levels were introduced alongside A levels in 1951 and were taken mainly by grammar school students. In 1965, CSEs (Certificates of Secondary Education) were brought in for students in secondary modern schools. As more schools became comprehensives, they began offering both examinations to pupils depending on their perceived intelligence.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the system “limited aspiration”. He added: “It didn’t work before and is even less likely to work in the modern economy. It doesn’t solve the problem of devalued exams but it does force schools to put a limit on the aspirations of certain pupils and to label them as less capable from a young age.”
Critics of the GCSE argue that they have become easier over time, leading to grade inflation, and that competition between exam boards has not helped the situation.
Professor Bill Boyle, chair of educational assessment at the University of Manchester, acknowledged that something needs to be done about “grade inflation” and the competition between exam boards, but said that a focus on tested outcomes was wrong.
He explained: “However you wrap it up, GCSE or O level, there needs to be more focus on the learning aspects of a pupil’s journey through school and the enrichment of those learning experiences rather than coverage of syllabi and minimum competency measurement.”
A spokeswoman for Cambridge Assessment, which owns the OCR awarding body, refuted claims that competition had resulted in dumbing down. She said: “Arbitrary changes to the exams system and the multiple purposes that qualifications are now often expected to take on have made it difficult to maintain standards over time.
“We welcome a commitment to ensure that the 40 per cent who do not achieve A* to C grades at GCSE are catered for and receive positive recognition of their achievement rather than simply ‘failing’ a GCSE.”
Meanwhile, Jan Hodges, CEO of vocational education charity Edge, questioned the value of exams at 16 in a system that is moving to compulsory education or training until 18. She added: “It’s also essential to discuss the many other paths to success. Technical, practical and vocational training are essential to deliver the skilled workforce we need for the future.”
The leaked documents suggest that Mr Gove had intended an autumn consultation on the proposals, but deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has said he would not be in favour of the return of a two-tier system.
Meanwhile, Wales’s education minister Leighton Andrews labelled the plans “bonkers”. He added: “GCSEs are a very good qualification and well respected.”