Gove plots to scrap all GCSEs and bring back the old 'elitist' O Level

Francis Gilbert's picture
The breaking news tonight, splashed all over the Daily Mail's website, is that Michael Gove is aiming to scrap the GCSE qualification over the next few years and bring back the old O Level. The Mail claims:

  • GCSEs will ‘disappear’ from schools within the next few years

  • The National Curriculum in secondary schools will be abolished

  • The requirement that pupils obtain five good GCSEs graded A* to C will be scrapped

  • Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs

  • O-level pupils will sit the same gold standard paper nationwide from a single exam board

Teachers like me will certainly be taking a big "gulp" at this news. I'm in the position of having taught GCSEs for the last twenty years but having been one of the last cohorts in the mid-1980s to take O Levels. My experience of O Levels were that they were very reductive and somewhat simplistic exams; I'm no fan of GCSEs, but in comparison to the old O Level they are enlightened qualifications! For example, the old O Level English had no coursework or speaking and listening component, and asked questions that required fairly basic skills such as summary skills, essay writing and reading comprehension. My memory of school is doing endless drilling in preparation for these exams to the exclusion of everything else. It left me, like thousands of other pupils, feeling alienated and dispirited. Michael Gove might have enjoyed doing them, but most of us didn't.

It also has to be borne in mind that O Levels were taken by fewer than a third of pupils, leaving a whopping 70% of pupils to take the second-rate CSE qualification, or leave school with no qualification at all. A return to this sort of elitist qualification system would be an unmitigated disaster, leaving most of our school leavers with second-rate qualifications to their name.

Gove is essentially an "elitist" in the sense that he believes that a certain percentage of pupils should be "creamed off" from the rest; he is the servant of the Tory shires and upper middle-class who want to separate their children off from the "rabble". He's shown this time again in his free schools policy, in his sneaky ploy to expand grammar schools, and now, most classically, in his junking of our current examination system. He has little time for the evidence; serious research suggests that GCSE may not be "dumbed down" at all. It's a contested area, but there's nothing conclusive to prove O Levels are a "better" qualification.

It's time for someone in the Lib-Dems and the opposition to start talking about equality more seriously. Where are you Nick Clegg? Where are you Sarah Teather? Do you agree with this dangerous nostalgic nonsense? Where's Twigg?

What is he is doing our school system is simply very unfair. It's time to protest.

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Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 08:23

A few months ago, Gove was shedding crocodile tears at Brighton College lamenting that top jobs went to public schoolboys. And here he is making sure that more and more people in the state education system are destined to serve below stairs.

Wasn't it the Tories who introduced GCSEs, saying that replacing O Levels would increase attainment for ALL? Difficult to reconcile the fact that Thatcher may have had a social conscience, but compared with the present incumbents, she looks like a model of cohesion. This decision is perhaps the boldest regressive step Gove is taking and threatens to obliterate the life chances of many young people, already suffering at the hands of this government who continue to preside over mass youth unemployment and record levels of (child) poverty.

This is selection and segregation pure and simple, laid bare. The jovial mask has been well and truly torn off to reveal the naked aggression at the heart of Tory ideology to separate the privileged from the oiks and to encourage snobbery at all levels. Its got nothing to do with being ambitious for your children doing well at school and has everything to do with having something to look down your nose at.

Gove is saying the Tory-invented GCSE model has failed. The evidence suggests otherwise, but his policies are never evidence based. Where is the evidence that the return of O Levels will succeed? And if they are a success, who are they successful for? It is nonsense, cruel and divisive to herd off a significant number of children from the age of 14, probably even before, and cut off any chance whatsoever that they go on to higher (academic) education. Labelled a failure with their prospects further narrowed at age 14, when there has been plenty of evidence for decades that children progress and different speeds, at different points in their young lives and even according to their sex.

It is difficult to see the rationale behind this. It is certainly not going to raise attainment for all, which I seem to remember was the mantra behind Academies and free schools. I wonder how this is going to square up with new Ofsted regulations punishing schools for failing to raise attainment for under achieveing pupils. Are CSE students therefore to be underattaining? There are going to be one hell of a lot of them, given that Osborne's disgraceful and idiotic austerity budget has increased poverty to staggering levels. There is well documented correlation between poverty and underachievement and schools and charities only this week reported that many kids are going to school hungry because there is no food in the house thanks to the double dip recession.

What next? How are schools going to cope with the number of "underachievers" condemned by this smug and delusional Secretary for Education to a life without hope? Oh yes. More grammar schools to house the O Level lot. Sink schools for the CSE lot. I thought Idiot Duncan Smith had a nerve denying poverty figures, demonising the unemployed as drunken, drug addicted layabouts yet remaining silent about the working poor but here is Gove joining his cabinet colleague in burning the goal posts every time it suits him and his toxic government in their relentless campaign to divide and rule and keep the plebs firmly in their place. The undeserving will be locked out of higher education, better jobs, a status in society.

Yes, it's time to protest but this government should not be at all surprised when we see more riots and civil unrest on our streets. They will have no one to blame but themselves. The Tory led coalition did not win the election. The way they have dragged this country into stagnation, whilst lining their own pockets and those of their friends, is affecting the population. It is time to protest, so that Gove's insane policies take shallower root and life can be breathed back into state education when the public exercises their democratic right and votes out this bunch of self serving incompetents who have impoverished Briatin in every way imaginable.

Paul Reeve's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 08:25

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: "Michael Gove must explain his changes to parents and pupils. Will going back to O-levels for some and CSEs for the rest really improve standards for all? Labour wants to see a robust, rigorous and broad curriculum and exam system that is trusted by parents, pupils and employers. We will set a series of tests to measure these changes.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 09:55

Mr Gove's muddled thinking on examinations is becoming risible. On the one hand he says state education is failing any child that doesn't get 5 "good" GCSEs while on the other hand he wants exams to be more difficult. I've commented on this before (see last link below) so won't repeat it here.

But were supposedly "rigorous" 'O' levels more challenging than CSEs? I'm old enough to have taken GCE's and taught CSE. CSE required pupils to work throughout the two-year course by providing coursework and didn't just rely on a sudden-death examination. CSE English Literature required a folio of coursework covering a wide range of literature not just the 3 set texts required for 'O' level.

So what did GCE 'O' levels in English and English Literature comprise?

English Language: no requirement to study literature. The final exam asked for three tasks: an essay, a comprehension and a precis (summary). There was no oral exam or listening exercise - both of these were present at CSE.

English Literature: study 3 texts over 2 years. These comprised: one play (usually Shakespeare), one volume of poetry (often Chaucer) and one novel. Popular choices of novels were Gerald Durrell's, "My Family and Other Animals" and Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie". I got away without studying a novel - some quirk in the set books meant I could replace a novel with a play (Shaw's "St Joan").

'O' levels are still available. Cambridge English Language requires two final exams: one on writing (creative and directed) and one on reading (for ideas and meaning). Cambridge Literature in English requires candidates to answer four questions on three to four texts taken from a minimum of two sections: prose, poetry and drama. It is, therefore, possible to pass 'O' level without reading any prose.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 10:20

I notice that the Mail said Gove was going to "tear up" the national curriculum for secondary schools. If the Mail is correct then why did Gove spend thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on a curriculum review if he knew he was going to scrap it?

He's becoming more like the sorcerer's apprentice every day.

Meraud's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 11:01

I was talking about Gove to a friend a couple of days ago; our conclusion was that he's taken his own personal narrative as some kind of paradigm and is trying to recreate his own experiences for everybody, and (weirdly) he doesn't seem to be able to look at things from any other perspective.

He seems to have attributed his own success to the form of his own education - but I wonder how many others of his classmates are sitting in the current cabinet? If not, why not? Although I find his manner irritating myself, he clearly has qualities which have spurred him on to do the things that he has in his career. I'm not sure that his schooling alone can account for this. And for others of a different temperament, of course, that kind of schooling can be disastrous.

In any case, this famous schooling of his seems not to have taught him to think in the abstract: he doesn't seem to consider that maybe what helped him wasn't the Latin or the grammar _per se_ (ha!), but rather an education which chimed with and encouraged his own abilities; if he could allow teachers the time, freedom and funds to do *that* in all schools we might be getting somewhere...

The reintroduction of a two-tier system just sounds like an admin nightmare, as well, regardless of the obvious unfairness on the children concerned.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:30


Gove went to school in Scotland and presumably the form of his own education conformed to the Scottish model -

No O-Levels, GCSEs or A-Levels, but a broad basic curriculum followed by studying 5 to 7 subjects at 'Highers' taken at 17.

As that's not what he's proposing, it's hard to support the idea that he's particularly blinkered by his own experience.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:37

Gove was largely privately educated and has a rose-tinted view of elite schooling. You know this is what Meraud meant. You are clearly as blinkered as Gove.

Meraud's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 12:25

You know, I was writing a long involved reply, but I think you understand my meaning really: O-levels or Highers, I think he's an educational reactionary and I don't like it. And then this blog made me laugh and I got off my high horse:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:44

Gove attended a merchant company school, which is not at all like going to an English public school. The curriculum there would have been the same as at any other Scottish school.

Meraud's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 12:40

I should stress that it made me laugh *at myself*..............

Ijho's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 03:52

Spot on Luke and we could all do with being far less defensive and far more fgorhtirht about the state secondary cause.Your instancing of Kent reminds me of my childhood experience in Scotland where, even under a predominantly state dominated system, there was an educational apartheid. I was one of the fortunate few to be 'sent' to the senior secondary school. whereas all my pals were sent to the 'junior' secondary. The junior secondaries were barely even the equivelant of a secondary modern.Result was that I lost contact with all those guys who were at 11 years of age already branded as no-hopers.Junior secondary focused their boys on what was politely called 'vocational' studies (i.e. second rate, non-academic). The memories about that trouble me when I hear some policians today asserting that many 'oedinary' kids would be better off leaving school and taking up so-called vocatiuonal studies.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:53

Was he privately educated? Yes or no? His experience of school is to do with being selected and segregated asway from the majority of children who went to state schools. His attitude to selection and elitism is a result of using his political position to favour advantaged children over the disadvantaged. Even fellow Tory Graham Stuart is saying this. His Curriculum reforms and the re-introduction of O Levels are the tools at his disposal to segregate. I don't know which of the many "Guests" you are here, but I am wondering whether you are Ricky Tarr in yet another disguise.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 18:35

The FT has published a great analysis of O Levels, showing they will be largely taken by children from poorer backgrounds...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 19:44

Francis - I think you mean that CSEs will be taken largely by children from poorer backgrounds.

Meanwhile - in the rest of the world, a final graduation exam at 18 is nearly universal in top-performing nations (judged by PISA). Even Hong Kong has moved to one exam - the exams equivalent to GCE/GCSE and 'A' level are being phased out from this year. Singapore sticks with 'O' and 'A' levels (as we're constantly being told) but Singapore also has an 'N' level for non academic pupils studying technical subjects.

Many countries have some sort of assessment (but not external exams) at 16 to judge how well pupils are doing. Sometimes these count towards a final graduation exam. Many also include other ways of assessment besides externally set exams - moderated coursework, for example, or extended projects. Even Shanghai's university entrance exam allows one subject (the elected one) to be assessed by non-traditional means (eg oral or even practical).

So while the rest of the world modernises, Gove wants to take England back over 25 years. And he calls it being up with the best in the world. I think he's living in Wonderland.

I've been looking at exams in other countries and will post my findings in Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) within the next few days.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:12

I posted this just now under Fiona's piece.

Haven’t time to comment on this as much as I would like but, apart from the over-arching issues dealt with so well in Fiona’s article, there are huge practical problems for schools in running a dual system.

I was a deputy head, and briefly a head, under the old O level/CSE arrangement and it created enormous problems for schools which people like Gove,who must have barely left university when GCSE was introduced, would be unaware of .

I’ll elaborate if I get chance later.

Paul Reeve's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 13:46

When I started teaching I was teaching pupils who took both 'O' levels and G.C.E. examinations in the same subjects! How dreadful that was for the pupils!

As Mike Baker points out, "In theory a Grade 1 CSE was the equivalent of an O Level pass. In reality, they were never given parity of esteem. So much so that many Secondary Modern schools quite rightly took the decision to enter their more able pupils for the O Level. Some students were entered for both and - unexpectedly - did better at the supposedly harder O level."

Mike Baker's view is well argued here.......

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 21:45

The comments which follow Mike Baker's blog are also very good.

Meraud's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 14:07

I was in the very last year to do O-levels and I well remember the awfulness of people being separated into CSE and O-level candidates. It was worst for those on the cusp.

It was also pretty unpleasant to know that the next year our qualifications would be in some sense old hat - nobody knew then that the O-level was going to be so harped on as an ideal: it just felt as if we might end up a bit left behind. I could imagine this being the case for current students in relation to this new idea, and I agree with other comments saying that it is particularly harsh and thoughtless to leak the proposal during the exam period.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 08:49

Paul and Meraud have made good points about the effect on children .

As I mentioned yesterday, I was responsible for managing the old GCE/CSE system in the late 70s early 80s. The problems were huge . In a dual examination system how do you deal, for example, with subjects which may only throw up enough pupils for one set? You either make it available only to the brighter or weaker ones, so denying the others access to the full curriculum or you try to teach towards both examinations: sometimes that was simply very difficult,sometimes, depending on the syllabus, well nigh impossible.

Inevitably,there was a substantial cohort of children who were on the borderline between O level and CSE. Increasingly,this led to dual entries with all the additional examination pressure on the pupils and organisational problems for schools.

Whilst I have no illusions about the currency of lower grade GCSEs now,the fact is that by 1986 the lowest grades CSE really were regarded as utterly worthless.

Much of the argument for Gove's proposed change rests on the claims that GCSE doesn't stretch the most able and that many questions are too easy.

Yet not only are the top grade, A*s, only awarded to about 3% of pupils in each subject but,obviously, GCSE is not a single subject examination. The expectation of the DfE is that the average number of subjects taken will be 8 so the brightest children can aspire to 8 A*s. What percentage achieve that? Certainly less than 1%.

As far as the easy questions are concerned much has been made of ones like the notorious one asking would yo use a telescope or a microscope to look at stars (or something like that) which is indefensible.

But the argument has been conducted dishonestly. The easiest questions have been cherry picked from GCSE and compared with the hardest ones from O level (as Woodhead did in his book the Desolation of Learning)

A few years ago the Sunday Times purported to publish what it claimed were Maths 'O' level papers from the golden age of the 1950s. Except they weren't. They only published the harder B papers and left out the easier A papers.

Similarly at 'A' level many arts subjects have three part questions. Woodhead and others have, on a number of occasions, quoted the easiest first part -often factually based - without making it clear that they were omitting the main two parts of the question which would normally carry as much as 90% of the total mark .

Most importantly, it is utterly pointless to argue (and I wouldn't disagree with the premise ) that overall public examinations are easier today than 50 years ago - although not to the extent which is claimed and not in all subjects - without considering the number of y children who actually sat them.

When I took O level in 1959 barely 15% of the year group sat and passed the exam; when I took A level in 1962 the figure was around 7%.

No debate on standards and the future of examinations should take place without these facts being prominent. They are not and I can understand Francis Gilbert's anger.

andy's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 18:47

Thank you Adrian for such a thoughtfully and accurately presented piece. It is a breath of fresh air to read an article focused on the core issue, education, and diluted and overly laden with party political polemics.

I remember the situation of sitting two examinations in '72. The irony was that whereas I failed to get the magic 'C' grade at 'O' level I got a grade one at CSE, which was accepted as an O level 'C' equivalent.

I concur with all your points but would also throw into the mix that:

1. Not only do students come in all shapes, sizes and colours but, and we forget this at our peril, they also come with a wide range of talents and abilities. Thus there will always be the requirement for a parallel education process e.g. academic and more hands on/vocationally based.
2. Even within the existing GCSE regime, wherein there may appear to be a single system, there is a three tier approach. I say this because for me there is the GCSE 5 A*-C with E&M, 5 A*-C and, yes, you guessed it the non-GCSE (but GCSE equivalence) track (e.g. BTECs and ALaN). So we need not kid ourselves that the current system is any better or worse that the GCE model.
3. The motivation for the introduction of GCSE was that the 'O' level had had its day and was longer fit for purpose, whereas the (allegedly) a qualififcation constructed after much consultation with educationalists and employers to reflect a skills and competencies based assessment.
4. It is interesting to note that the Singaporean system, upon which this is latest leak and suggested change is based, is moving away from it to a more creative and innovation approach.

What makes me so very cross and angry is that what is being mooted by the government represents a sticking plaster quick fix based on an individual's misplaced nostalgia, and a critical opportunity to undertake a thorough review of the purpose of education and what it should look like in England for today's world has not been taken.

Albeit a skeptical about what else will follow I did feel uplifted by the reference to the scrapping of the national curriculum straightjacket. I recognise that there will be those who disagree but the ability to truly shape and focus a curriculum offer that best suits each school and shed several of the accretions from recent years will prove to be a catalyst for improving the quality of teaching and learning (e.g. coverage of fewer subjects allowing more time of important areas such as literacy and numeracy).

andy's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 06:02

Before anyone jumps all over the omission, I am aware that under the suggestion there would be a core curriculum of Eng, Maths and Science. Apologies for my oversight.

Similarly the disconnect between 'O' and 'A' levels was created at the point of introducing GCSEs and no amount of meddling (AS/A2) ever addressed the imbalance. The former system was, if you like a linear progress with 'Os' preparing students for 'As', but with GCSE being an entirely different style of examination assessing different things than the 'O' levels, it was always totally ill-conceived not to have undertaken a thorough review of the 'A' levels in the 80s.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 09:26

There's an excellent article in the FT about this issue:

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