Are GCSEs too easy?

Channel 4 is taking children back to the Fifties to see how they cope with old-fashioned schooling. The series is expected to spark a national debate on the merits of GCSEs and O-levels. Jill Parsons heads for the exam room to make up her own mind
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The Independent Online

I have just sat my O-level English language exam. And GCSE English. And I did rather well, thank you. I am the oldest student enrolled at the fictitious King's School, and I have a distinct advantage over my 16-year-old contemporaries, in that I am 20 years their senior, have a degree in English and possess a wealth of useful experience and world-weariness. Plus, I have seen it all before.

I sat and passed my English language O-level proper in 1981, when I was 15. The reason I find myself back behind a wooden desk, scraping away the mental moss, is to play a small part in a television experiment, That'll Teach 'Em, which began on Channel 4 this week. It has taken 30 of this year's GCSE students, from a wide range of backgrounds and schools, back to the Fifties. They are closeted away in King's School, a specially prepared boarding school full of cameras and microphones, to be coached in old-style O-levels. I wanted to see and do those exams myself, to draw my own conclusions about how O-levels compare with today's GCSEs.

The programme-makers' aim is to immerse 21st-century young people in the social and educational culture of the Fifties. Computer games, CDs, hair gel, make-up and even personal choice and freedom are banished. Instead, the young people are forced to endure scratchy uniforms, beds made with sheets and blankets, matron, short back and sides, Ludo and absolute authority. They are being coached in Latin, grammar, old-style maths and history that covers the days of the Empire. After one month, they will sit O-levels in English, history and maths.

While the TV series may draw plenty of worthy conclusions about cultural change and society, the question on everyone's lips is: are GCSEs easier than O-levels?

My knowledge about GCSEs was sketchy, gleaned from newspaper reports and occasional glimpses at the work of friends' teenage children. As a child of the Seventies, I had first-hand experience of modern educational methods, from coloured Cuisenaire Rods for maths, to look-and-see methods for reading. I also spent a couple of years at a school so old-fashioned that the boys had geometry lessons while I learnt to embroider a pock-marked square of canvas, an academic division of the sexes that is reproduced in the television school.

Yet this school also gave me a grounding in English so comprehensive that it inspired a real love of language. Since I completed my education, I have had a sense that standards were slipping, although I had nothing concrete to go on.

Now I could put the GCSE versus O-levels debate to the test myself. Invited to the television school by the producer Simon Rockell, himself a former teacher at state and independent schools (and the series' history teacher), I sat one of this year's higher tier papers in English, and a 1958 paper in English language.

The GCSE, frankly, looked easy-peasy. I had to draw a comparison between a newspaper article supporting medical testing on animals and a (very short) animal rights leaflet, on which I was required to comment on pictures and typeface as well as the words. I was then asked to write a letter to my MP, either for or against pharmaceutical tests on animals.

The O-level, superficially very daunting, was a venture into much more familiar territory. I was used to writing things called "composition" and "précis", so doing them was straightforward. I answered questions on idioms, parts of speech and wrote an essay in praise of single-sex education, in which I examined issues of personal hygiene and suggested that the ruthlessness of lacrosse prepared girls for the workplace. There was, however, an optional question that I was happy to avoid because it demanded more knowledge about parts of speech than I possess.

Unlike today's GCSE students, I knew I would receive my papers back, marked according to the rules at that time (bad spelling and grammar were heavily penalised), and that I would receive detailed comments on my performance soon after.

And my conclusions? First, the results: I achieved a very high A* in my GCSE and 85 per cent in the O-level. This was perhaps not so surprising given that I am a writer, and am schooled in the rules of English grammar. Yet sailing through the GCSE did not feel like a great achievement. It is no reflection on today's able, hard-working, students to say that the exam does them no credit. I could not see any challenges, any demands, to tax the average 16-year-old, let alone the most able. I feel that the GCSE has gone too far down the accessibility route, jettisoning important tools for appreciating the English language along the way.

In the GCSE, I had used "too many words", according to the examiner. Bullet points would have been better, I was told. I had also failed to comment in depth on the typeface of the leaflet I was analysing, or on its use of colour, attributes that, to me, had no place in an English exam.

I came away feeling that we are failing to equip GCSE students properly with the skills needed to use and understand language, whether it is writing a letter or deciphering a pun. I was capable of undertaking and achieving good marks in both types of exam. We should have the confidence to trust our overstretched teenagers to do the same.

So what is such an experiment likely to add to the annual summer debate about whether exam results are being dumbed down and whether standards have fallen? Will it serve to reassure this year's GCSE students who are waiting nervously for their results, or simply add to their woes?

David Hargreaves, former chief executive of the exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), hopes that the TV series will spark a national discussion on what should be taught in school. He has real worries about whether children are being educated to write properly. "There should be more traditional grammar and spelling, and we should penalise work when it is wrong," he says. "We have to accept that there is a major problem with students writing well.

"We should see a period of restoration of traditional language learning, with a key list of standard spellings and key elements of grammar to promote good writing and reading. This is not a sterile learning of rules but an acknowledgement that it is a powerful tool for good communications."

Britain could learn from similar debates in the Netherlands, Germany and France, Hargreaves thinks. In Britain, we don't need to turn the clock back to the Fifties, but we do need to find a middle way between radicalism and conservatism, he believes.

But other education experts disagree. Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, thinks the TV experiment is a futile exercise. "You can't compare then and now," he says. "The circumstances are so completely different."

He wonders what's wrong with commenting on the layout and typeface of a leaflet as well its language: modern communications make the whole product very important, he says. Not being able to write a sentence is very damaging to a young person, he agrees. "But is it worrying that they use the split infinitive or put apostrophes in the wrong place? I don't think so. We can't ossify standards - and we certainly can't go backwards."

Phil Taylor, who is departing as head of Stamford Community High School in Ashton-under-Lyne to become advisory head teacher of Tameside local education authority, agrees. He supports the Secondary Heads Association's desire to have more internal, school-assessed testing at 16 with teachers as moderators. And he definitely prefers GCSEs to O-levels, arguing that learning should be imaginative and accessible, and that we should be far less formal in our national assessment. "Formal exams are a real dampener to an innovative approach."

The debate about grammar is a lot of nonsense and largely irrelevant, he thinks. It won't help people read, write or speak more effectively. One head who believes that the debate about exams at 16 have become too polarised is Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies College. Focusing on whether O-levels are better than GCSEs is missing the point, she says. To do well in either requires a thorough schooling in the use of English. "You cannot be creative, be transported by linguistic expression or dig into another language or culture without a proper language structure," she says. "It's about striking a balance." In the Fifties, the curriculum was too narrow and rigid, she believes. Now, she feels, it's a good thing it has been broadened, but we shouldn't abandon the language learning which was the good aspect of the O-level.

"What I find depressing about the current education debate is that it is always either/or. You can make learning broad but still have rigour. You can be creative and correct," she says.

David Williams, head teacher of Kingsdown, a comprehensive school in Swindon, agrees that a balance of knowledge and skills is the key. "Elements of the old O-levels have their place," he says. "Learning by rote was a great exercise for the brain - I could still quote you lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream - and précis skills are very useful in later life. In history nowadays we value research, but I remember the great stories, the villains and heroes, which I believe can inspire students far more."

Old versus new: English exam papers

Question from a 1958 O-level:

Write a composition on one of the following subjects

* What advantages do you think you have gained by being educated in a co-educational school or in a school for boys or girls only?

* Describe and illustrate what you consider the chief qualities necessary for leadership.

* What do you think you gain from a youth organisation to which you belong, and in what respects do you thing it could be improved.

Question from a 2000 GCSE:

Answer one question from this section

* Write a letter to your MP in which you argue either for or against animal experimentation.

* Write an article for a newsletter in which you aim to persuade your readers that animals should be released from any form of captivity.

* Write a set of instructions for new pet owners on the requirements of looking after an animal of your choice.