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Michael Gove's O-levels

Well, that was bombshell yesterday, wasn't it? Certainly for other members of the coalition government who hadn't been told. What are we to make of Michael Gove's intention to ditch GCSEs, the national curriculum and multiple exam boards for subjects? Teachers have not asked for it? Nor parents? Some have sought an end to a 16+ exam full stop, but that's another matter.

Gove's claim is that GCSEs are not hard enough and that having different exam boards offering the same subject leads to dumbing down of content. His desire to do away with the national curriculum seems mostly to do with his conservative desire not to tell teachers what to do.

His inspiration seems to be the Singapore education system which sorts children into sheep and goats at an early stage, channelling them into different exams.

Gove's "O-level" would not be like the one which lasted up to 1987 as it would be aimed, we are told, at the top 75% of the school population. By setting more "rigorous" exams we would raise standards and compete more successfully in the PISA league tables (note that the new exams are proposed initially for maths, English and science, the only subjects measured by PISA).


It occurs to me that the current GCSE is not sat by all pupils, so it is false to claim that it is a universal exam. It also occurs to me that, in modern languages, it is, generally speaking, reasonably challenging. My grammar school pupils are challenged and, despite the dubious nature of controlled assessments, we have complained little of the general level of difficulty. I cannot speak for my colleagues in maths, English and science, although I have never heard them complain about the levels of challenge in GCSE. In MFL there has been no noticeable grade inflation; in fact we have seen a certain degree of grade deflation at the A*/A grade area..

The existing GCSE, with its tiering system, allows for differentiation, and it is only in the highest powered independent schools that you see masses of A* grades. Teachers do not generally complain that it is too easy.

Michael Gove talks about taking the best from the highest performing educational jurisdictions. Singapore does well in PISA, but then so does Finland. These two nations have quite contrasting educational systems. the former being quite elitist and sorting pupils by ability at an early age, the latter using a fully comprehensive system. When he chooses the Singapore model he is reflecting his own prejudice. Creating a two tier examination system will not, as far as I can see, promote social mobility, and the students not doing the new "O-level" will be seen as second class pupils, just as CSE was seen as a worthless exam up against O-level pre 1987.

As for the national curriculum, why have one at primary level but not at secondary? In any case, we would end up with a de facto national curriculum set by the exam boards setting the exams. To my mind, it is entirely reasonable for a government to lay out, in simple terms, the general areas which children should study. What we have now, with some schools having to follow the NC and others not, is a dog's breakfast.

As for exam boards, I have no problem with doing away with competition between boards for subjects. Individual boards can always offer varying syllabuses in any case, to allow some flexibility and choice for teachers.

Michael Gove is in too much of a rush and in this case he is not responding to a perceived need. This seems like fag packet policy-making and I hope he gets slapped down promptly.


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