We’re on a journey full-circle back to O-levels

Michael Gove's reforms, which will stretch the brightest students, are long overdue
  • @PhilipHensher

I’ve been struggling to remember what attitude people took towards the old O‑levels when GCSEs came in in 1986. I took my O-levels in 1981, so, in theory, I ought to have been at the blunt end. Did people worry that their old qualifications had been declared valueless, as people now taking GCSEs are saying? I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that the abandonment of one qualification for another means its discrediting, except for one thing: if the qualification always contained problems within itself.

School exams serve two purposes, perhaps quite impossible to reconcile. In the first instance, they measure what has been learnt and place a cohort in relation to each other, in terms of achievement. In the second, they offer a means of educating pupils; the curriculum that a student must master in order to pass exams is what a student must master in order to understand a subject.

What critics of the GCSE have always been concerned about is this. The exam does not test a body of knowledge or skill, but an ability to fulfil its own requirements. It is perfectly possible to pass a GCSE in French, even with a good grade, while being absolutely incapable of carrying on a conversation in French with a native. The test’s requirements can be fulfilled in a sealed-off world. Similarly, it is possible to pass GCSE English literature without having read a book. I cannot see what is being tested here, except the tautologous one of being able to pass the test.

As time went on, the requirements of the test became more familiar to the educational establishment, which became better at training students to pass it. The consistent rise in pass rates over 25 years did not reflect what universities were finding in their first-years’ rate of achievement, as more objective topics could easily discover. When I started work at the University of Exeter in 2005, supposedly one of the best universities in the country, I was alarmed to see the lack of grammatical sense in students who had all scored top marks at GCSE and A-level. Out of 147 first-year English students, only one that year – a mature student – could tell me what was wrong with the sentence: “A kind friend has invited my wife and I to dinner.”

The ideal might be for committed, intelligent teachers to teach their subject, and for a well-intentioned examiner to come along after four years and ask them to write something in French, let us say, about the differences between the French and English sense of humour. Or just to engage them in conversation, without warning or notification, just to discover what they’ve mastered. Well, that’s not going to happen; education thrives on the curriculum and on specific demands, specifically fulfilled.

There’s a reason, however, why, as Ofsted this week pointed out, schools are failing their most able students. Sixty-five per cent of students who get a level above the expected standard in English or maths at the end of primary school don’t even go on to get an A* or A at GCSE. It’s because, though standards diverge sharply after that point, students who could be interested are still taught with those who need to be taken through it laboriously and without much engagement. Students who might like the subject are taught with students who only want to fulfil obligations.

Ofsted’s solution was a reintroduction of sets for key subjects. Michael Gove’s solution for the low reputation of the GCSE is going to be to reintroduce exams with more rigorous standards. This attempt to stretch the most able students is long overdue, and absolutely necessary if the best students are not to fall away from learning, bored and unengaged. But can any exam test the full range of student achievement, and fulfil that other task, of helping students along? The GCSEs failed able students comprehensively; it is easy to see how the new, exam-based system will not register the distinction between a not very good student and a total waster. The future is clear: it can only be a matter of time before these new exams are supplemented with other qualifications for the less able or less committed; perhaps coursework based and less demanding. You could even call them O-levels and CSEs. Just a thought.

Kids can cope with angry Lego

Back in the day, we had only square blocks in our Lego box, with the occasional thrilling window frame or arched piece. Actually, the construction kit I was allowed to have was an austere grey German thing called Fischertechnik, with which you could build suspension bridges and cooling towers, so I’m no expert. The Danish company Lego, since 1975, has developed small figures, and they have followed an interesting path. At first, according to a detailed New Zealand study, all the figures had a broad, simple smile.

Then, from 1989, more complex emotions started to be displayed. “Angry, surprised, scared and enigmatic expressions” are now common among the range. Children are robust, and you can never predict the way that they are going to play with toys. Even those 1975 smiley faces were, no doubt, put to use reconstructing pirate massacres and alien atrocities.

The New Zealand researchers are concerned about the effect on children’s psyches of non-cheerful expressions, but I don’t think we need worry. The pleasing thing is what a nice insight this gives into Scandinavian stereotypes. Angry, surprised, scared and enigmatic; with a range like that, your child could stage a production of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken on the playroom floor.