Lisa Markwell: The education reform that is testing for everyone

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"How did it go?" I ask brightly. The response is a grunt. This is my lot as the mother of a child sitting GCSEs.

The end is in sight. Monday sees the last of it: Additional Science Unit 2 B5, C5, P5. What does it mean? You're showing your age but also, perhaps, that you haven't kept up to speed on education reform. Admittedly this is difficult, as the changes in schools seem to come with the same regularity as the purchase of a new PE kit. Yesterday we heard about the possibility of another one.

The current format for 16-year-olds is a collection of units for each subject: bite-sized chunks that are sat over a period of months, some even a year before the rest. It seems to make it easier to cram information in at the last moment – which is not, I believe, learning at all – and it makes the exam season last what feels like a lifetime. Was it better when we had O-levels, to which, if Michael Gove has his way, we will return in two years? That depends on how old you are and whether you passed the 11-plus. I passed and sat O-levels at a grammar, my sister failed and sat GCEs at a secondary modern. It coloured our relationship for decades.

But the misty-eyed remembrances of those who sat O-levels are misleading. Yes they were more rigorous and invoked a deep understanding of the subject but even then there were discrepancies. And this is goes to the heart of the problem.

It's not the kind of exam that children sit that is, in essence, so important. It's that there is no uniformity. My son told me this week that one subject's questions were framed in such basic terms that he was worried he was missing something. The next day, different subject, different board, the questions were so convoluted it took him half the allotted time to get his head round them.

And that, one must assume, is all about the real villain of the piece – school league tables. While there is choice between examining boards, schools that want the maximum A* students will choose the tests that give them what they want, creating the "race to the bottom", examinations-wise. Gove, of course, will change that by having just one board for each subject, but he will reintroduce the old two-tier system.

By the by, is it odd that a Tory is complaining about competition? Just a thought.

And for those of us with a younger child who we'll be nursing through yet another system – well, I feel like I'm walking round Escher's staircase clutching a pencil case. Frankly, the children should be applauded for understanding the system well enough to get this far. An O-level in education – now there's an idea...

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