Daily Archives: June 21, 2012

Chris Cook

The Daily Mail has published a rather startling story: from 2016, children will sit something akin to the old O-levels. Some parts of the story are relatively uncontroversial: the idea that there should be one exam board in each subject has many friends.

The newspaper also discusses abolishing the National Curriculum for secondary schools. However, if you have a single GCSE available in each subject, that sets a national curriculum in all but name. So these are less interesting than the sum of their parts.

But, if the Mail is correct, there is one proposal which stands out: splitting the GCSE. According to the report, under this new scheme some children would get the new O-level, and the bottom 25 per cent would take “CSEs”. This strikes me as a high-risk policy.

The GCSE’s strength is that it is a full-spectrum exam, measuring low to high ability. It includes questions designed to distinguish candidates that should get a G from candidates than deserve an F, as well as questions to filter A* candidates from those getting an A.

This is also its greatest PR weakness: it gets attacked by people citing the low-level questions. The Mail approvingly notes “questions like ‘Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?’ from science GCSEs will be a thing of the past.”

The benefit of this system is that you get comparable qualifications, and there is no need for schools to attempt to sift children, guessing who will finish up with less than a C. The GCSE exams themselves do that work for them. But, according to the Mail:

Mr Gove believes those teenagers have been encouraged to think that a D, E, F or G grade at GCSE is a ‘pass’ when the real world treats those grades as a ‘fail’.

I confess that I do not see how it logically follows that the lower end of the GCSE should therefore be replaced with a CSE. The government would replace a D at GCSE with a certificate where the top grade is capped at a D. Maybe something got lost in the briefing.

The change would, however, have significant practical effects.