Proof that GCSEs are tougher and more rigorous than O Levels?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I spent an interesting morning at Television Centre today, appearing on Broadcasting House, the Sunday morning magazine show hosted by the affable Paddy O'Connell. Taking a light-hearted look at the current O Level and GCSE debate, he sat an English O Level question and a GCSE one; they were both 'writing' or composition questions. As a former exam boarder marker and veteran of marking GCSE scripts for twenty years, I was called in to assess his work. It was really interesting. The O Level question asked candidates to write about someone who thinks they are better than they actually are, and the GCSE question was to analyse the importance of listening. Paddy turned in a creditable O Level answer but spelt the noun form of 'practice' incorrectly, using 's' instead of 'c', and somewhat inexplicably spelt 'lily' incorrectly! He clearly knew how to spell the word -- he gave the correct spelling after the show to me -- but must have suffered under the stress of exam conditions. His answer was funny -- he owned up to being the person who thought he was better than he actually was! The interesting thing about marking his O Level script was that there was no assessment criteria to hand except the examiner's report from that year. I had to improvise marking the essay; it was clearly an A grade; the tone, the paragraphing, the structure of the essay was, as you would expect, good, and, in the absence of any clear criteria, I had to give Paddy a good mark. Having spoken to O Level markers, I have no doubt that this is how O Levels were marked. You have to remember that only 20-30% of students took O Levels; this meant you could have a smallish pool of examiners, many of whom knew each other and spoke the same 'old boy' language. The discourse of the examiner's report was like listening to some old codger watching the cricket at Lords with a glass of Pimms in his hand, talking about "slapdash" standards, too many "rapes" in one question, complaining about girls using circles above their 'i's and stating boldly without any quantitative evidence that standards were slipping. Plus sa change?

Marking the GCSE essay was both easier and harder. The marking criteria was very clear; for writing it's divided into two main areas, Assessment Objectives i and ii, which were marked out of 20, and Assessment Objectives, iii, which are marked out of ten.

To get a top band answer, you have to meet these criteria for AO i and ii:

In this band a candidate’s writing:
shows sophisticated control of the material and makes  effective use of linguistic devices.
demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the task,  addressing it with complete relevance and adapting form and style with flair to suit audience and purpose.
uses precise vocabulary which is fully suited to the purpose of the writing, conveying subtlety of thought and shades of meaning, and where appropriate is imaginative and ambitious in scope.
uses structure to produce deliberate effects, developing  the writing coherently and skilfully from a confident opening which engages the reader to a very convincing and deliberate ending.
is organised into coherent paragraphs which are clearly varied for effect and used confidently to enhance the ideas and meaning.

For AO iii, you have to meet these criteria for a top band answer:

In this band a candidate’s writing:
uses a wide range of sentence structures to ensure clarity and to achieve specific effects relevant to the task.
uses ambitious vocabulary with very few spelling errors.
uses punctuation consciously and securely to shape meaning, with very few errors.

Unfortunately, Paddy's answer just a little wayward and all over the place, though full of good ideas. With some teaching, he would achieve a top band answer, but his answer went off topic and lost focus in places, and there's no doubt in my mind that he would have not achieved an A* as one would expect, but actually get a low A grade. It made me realise that at the top end, GCSE is a demanding exam; to really excel, you have to be pretty darn good! It also brought home to me -- and Paddy -- just how terrifying these exams are; Paddy confessed to being nerve-wracked and quite stressed by it. He took the GCSE question after the O Level question and it showed; he'd lost a bit of concentration. Many of my students  were taking two or three exams in one day; I've noticed time again that my classes' results are worse if they've taken an exam in the afternoon. The poor things are exhausted!

I'm just not sure that these exams are an accurate test of ability, though there's no doubt in my mind that GCSE English is a far more rigorous exam than the old O Level.
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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 20:08

Well done for that interview Francis.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 10:57

The marking criteria was very clear

Oops. Deduct a mark.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 12:27

I wrote this on another thread but will repeat it here. I took GCE 'O' level. The English Language exam comprised three questions: a composition (essay), a precis (summary) and a comprehension exercise. There was no speaking or listening. The English Literature exam required the study of three texts: one play (usually Shakespeare), one volume of poetry (usually one Chaucer) and one novel. The latter could include one from the literary canon - such authors always featured among the set books - but nothing prevented the choice of less demanding books - my friend studied "Lark Rise" by Flora Thompson; Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals" was a particularly popular choice way back in the 70s and it was still listed on the 2003 Edexcel 'O' level Literature in English (which at least required candidates to read two novels).

It's even possible today to pass 'O' level English Literature without reading a novel. Cambridge 'O' level requires the candidate to answer 4 questions from at least 2 sections: drama, poetry and prose.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 12:38

Yes it was an interesting interview, with successful avoidance of Paddy having to terminate it.

There does not seem much doubt to me thought that many subjects other than English are easier at GCSE than at O level. I have done some comparison using old papers for chemistry I could look up on the web. I also compared IGCSE from 2011 to my old 1989 GCSE and the syllabus was similar.

Here are perhaps the critical points.

Is it alright for people to want more difficult exams for children at 16 than they currently receive? Especially if these exams are preparatory for further and higher education? The children also choose whether or not to take them.

Why didn't teachers have much to say about easier exams over the past decade or so, apart from those who said it they dumbing down and were ignored or criticised, so it seems to me.

Why is it not okay to have variety and sortation of children's abilities on a voluntary basis?

Are you saying that children must be norm referenced to one exam standard which uses reduced criteria, to distort the potential achievement of even the best achiever towards the lowest achiever?

Is this another poor conception of what comprehensive education means? Since once again we are seeing an attempt at facilitating high achievement being criticised just because some children cannot or will not achieve a given high standard.

Are you going to return your teaching degree because it sorts you as teaching wheat from the chaff of the non-grad teacher?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 13:09

Ben - you might be interested in the thread about scrapping GCSEs altogether and establishing a graduation diploma at age 18 in line with top-performing countries (as measured by PISA).

No-one is criticising high achievement, Ben. All pupils should have the chance to reach their full potential. They should also be able to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. Other countries have found it possible to do this without either dismissing low achievers or hobbling high attainers.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 20:14

That's why I don't understand the problem with the potential return of O levels - what is to stop other qualifications existing? It might be better to do that and teach something like the content of the Cambridge certificates to children who can't handle O level. Learn how to write a letter, learn English spelling including the common irregular words, practice legible handwriting. In fact I couldn't care less in a way what the name of the qualification is as long as certain functions are performed. Higher education are reporting they can't tell who is most capable, they have to teach what was previously in schools. Businesses are having to teach reading and writing to school leavers.

Why is it not okay to have challenging targets? As for those who struggle to achieve them can't we encourage them to keep learning and try to improve? There is nothing to stop a 16 year old working or studying and doing some part time study on retaking a GCSE. I think the government should give people decent tax breaks to do something like that, so it actually pays to improve yourself.

You say you don't want to hobble the high achiever, so are you contra O levels (on the assumption that they would be harder then GCSE) even when they can just be taken voluntarily?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 10:37

Ben - you might be interested in the thread below which gives the results of a recent survey into what universities think about their first-year students. The results are more nuanced than generalised statements about universities having to do remedial classes.

You say "business are having to teach reading and writing to school leavers". Please provide reliable evidence for this.

You make an assumption that 'O' levels would be harder than GCSE. That has not been proved. As I said, it is quite possible to get an 'O' level in Literature in English without reading a novel. GCSE was a brave attempt 25 years ago to have an exam which would show all levels of achievement. GCSE English and English Literature courses were more demanding than their 'O' level equivalents as they required the study of more texts.

I support the idea that all pupils should have challenging targets. As I say on the other thread about what other countries do - it is quite possible to have a universal graduation diploma which shows what all pupils know, understand and can do. The best are a kind of portfolio showing achievement in a variety of ways which can and do include the most challenging examinations.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 10:46

You say “business are having to teach reading and writing to school leavers”. Please provide reliable evidence for this.

Many UK employers say they are providing support for school leavers in reading, writing, maths and IT according to the latest CBI/ Pearson Education and Skills Survey........

....around a fifth of all employers are running classes in numeracy or literacy, with some providing extra help in more than one area. Overall, more than a third (35%) are dissatisfied with the literacy skills of their new employees.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 11:01

Here is another link.

It indicated that employers main concerns are that:
"Overall, three in five (61%) believe there are weaknesses in school leavers' self-management skills, while 69% report problems in youngsters' business and customer awareness."

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 15:36

I have started a new thread which discusses the CBI/Pearson 2012 Education and Skills Survey. I'm not sure it upholds Ben's view that a vague number of businesses are having to teach reading and writing. It found that 20% felt they needed to upgrade the literacy or numeracy of their school/college leaver recruits and only "some" had to do both. Upgrading literacy is not the same as teaching reading and writing.

It would actually be useful to discover what this upgrading entailed. When the Mail trumpeted that universities were having to give remedial lessons in spelling and grammar, it turned out that this was only a small part of the tuition which also covered such things as writing an academic essay and citing references (a fiendishly complicated subject).

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