Replacing GCSEs

When O levels were first devised, they were designed to be the principal academic qualification taken by most pupils who had a demonstrable academic ability. CSEs were for those that didn't. The system expressed the division between grammar schools and secondary modern and scarcely made sense without it. So when the new, unified GCSE was introduced in 1988 it was generally seen as long overdue.

Unfortunately, before long it became clear that the GCSE really meant CSEs for everyone. It's astonishing to learn that the proportion of students now obtaining top grades is three times what it was when they were introduced - astonishing, that is, to anyone aware of how dumbed down they were to begin with. Michael Gove's apparent determination to ditch GCSEs in favour of a restored O level-type qualification is somewhat idealistic - rather like his beautiful suggestion the other day that children should be made to learn poetry by heart. I doubt the latest scheme would survive the inevitable mauling it would face from the educational establishment even if the Lib Dems weren't dead set against it. But it's a nice idea.

It raises an inevitable conundrum, of course. Any exam that possesses sufficient rigour to be worthwhile - not just on its own terms, but also in the face of international competition, which is what really matters - will by definition be too difficult for a minority of pupils to pass. That would be true whatever improvements are made in teaching. That doesn't mean that they need be aimed at a fairly narrow elite, as the old O levels were. But it does mean that some different provision would have to be made for those who are incapable of academic rigour. Such a thought terrifies many educationalists, soggy liberals and sentimentalists - which is why Gove's plan may be stillborn.

Something must be done. GCSEs are discredited. Their grades inflated into meaninglessness, they have become like scout badges, laborious to collect yet almost entirely pointless. They are not even "too easy". If only they were, the more able students would have to waste less time on them and would have more opportunity to stretch their minds. What they are is insipid.

So GCSEs should obviously go. Is the best solution, though, to replace them with a new lot of exams that would, in a few years' time, fall victim to exactly the same process of grade inflation and declining confidence? Far better just to get rid of them. Their abolition would help to solve another of the ills besetting secondary education in Britain, the proliferation of testing and examinations. Post-16 qualifications make sense only in a system where 16 is the normal school leaving age. Where the usual leaving age is 18 it is far more logical for the main assessment of academic achievement to be coincide with the final year of school.

And then there are AS levels, a generally pointless qualification designed principally (it always seemed to me) to prevent Sixth Formers from having too much fun in their lower year. With GCSEs out of the picture, they would at last have a proper purpose as a staging post on the way to A-levels - or, in subjects where the student doesn't intend to pursue a full A-level, as a final qualification. AS levels might not be quite so rigorous as O levels used to be, but they are already in existence, teachers are familiar with them and they are integrated with A-levels in a way that GCSEs have never been. They could be introduced to slightly younger students with minimum disruption and cost.


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