I've thought an awful lot about both the fiasco over GCSE English grades this summer (in sum, it was idiocy to shift the grades) and the announcement this week about replacing GCSE with a new exam.
I'm a product of the old O level and hated it, even though I did fairly well. It's very clear to me, as it doesn't seem to be to Michael Gove, that a three hour memory test at the end of two years' study is not the best way to test pupils' understanding of the concepts they have learnt. It's certainly a very poor way of showing how they are prepared for the demands of work. A lot of my thinking on the matter has been elegantly summed up for me in a letter to the press (I found it in the Guardian) by the former head of the Joint Matriculation Board, who was also the first head of Ofqual, Kathleen Tattersall:
As the former chief executive of the Joint Matriculation Board (GCE O- and A-levels), the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board and AQA (GCSEs and A-levels), and the first chair of Ofqual, I am appalled that we have a secretary of state for education who chooses to turn the clock back to a time when the success of the few was valued against the failure of the many ('Ebacc' to replace GCSE exams, 18 September). No one who is responsible for the education of young people should be proud to introduce a system which will result in a greater number of students leaving school with no qualifications. Education is about encouraging success and the raising of aspirations, not the writing off of a generation, which is what this new, untried, untested policy, based on prejudice and untruths, will bring about.
Mr Gove claims that GCSE has lowered standards. Why? Because more students succeed than was ever the case in O-level, an examination intended for 20% of the population? The real question is why so many students in the past did not succeed. Were they incapable of attaining a qualification, or was the qualification designed in such a way that most students failed? All examination systems are artificial constructs which reflect the values and aspirations of society. In the mid-1980s a thoughtful Conservative secretary of state, Keith Joseph, chose, after long deliberation and consideration of many feasibility studies, to remove the artificial limitations of O-level and introduce a single system of examination at 16+ designed to encourage all students to make the most of their abilities and to examine what the students "know, understand and can do" (DfE 1988). For the first time this country had a qualification which gave credit to students' achievements rather than defining most students as failures. We should be welcoming, not be alarmed by, the rise in the percentage of students gaining grade C (equivalent to the former O-level pass standard) and above.
We are now faced with a situation where Mr Gove is intent on dismantling the system with little evidence of the fall in standards he claims and no consideration of the impact on education generally and more specifically on the students for whom he holds responsibility. Those of us with knowledge and long experience of examination systems here and elsewhere fear that these changes will harm a generation of students and be detrimental to this country.