Philip Hensher: I only scraped my O-levels but Gove is right


When Michael Gove announced that he was preparing to introduce a new two-tier system of examinations at 16, resembling the old O-levels and CSEs, the response from the teaching profession and the Government's coalition partners was predictable.

The proposal was returning us to a two-tier system where children would be labelled as successes or failures based on the exams they were entered for. The universal GCSE should never be abandoned.

I'm old enough to have taken O-levels, and it is true that there was a certain amount of stigma attached to the CSE. But it's hard to see why this should be the case. CSEs were introduced after the O-level, at a time when 80 per cent of pupils were leaving with no qualification at all; not up to the high standards of the O-level, they were offered a qualification which would measure their attainment.

In other areas of life, we don't seem to care about two-tier systems. Drivers are able to take the ordinary driving licence, or a special one which permits them to drive heavy vehicles. Nurses take exams which qualify them to make some medical procedures, but not those permitted to doctors. No one suggests that this is humiliating to drivers or to nurses. But when it comes to school examinations, the dislike of two systems runs deep.

Certainly, the old O-level was very much harder than current GCSEs. I have here an old German O-level, which asks candidates to translate a passage from English which includes this sentence: "If one was not careful, one lost one's way in the house, and sometimes when one was sitting in a chair it would collapse, and the others would laugh loudly."

By contrast, the most demanding question on a recent German GCSE asks candidates, first in English and then in German, to explain to a German friend, "How often you play [your favourite sport]; who you play with; where the sports centre is; what you think of the sports centre; what it costs to play; what you wear to play."

Clearly, the old O-level would be completely useless to the vast majority of pupils, who would never reach that standard of expression. Equally clearly, the new GCSE has not really succeeded in teaching the pupils very much German at all, and that despite all evidence that pupils are being worked harder and harder by the system.

The exam system ought to have two functions, neither of which is being taken quite seriously enough. The first is to measure the real attainment of students, distinguishing them one from another. It can do that only by, secondly, stretching all the candidates to their temporary limits. When a quarter of marks are at A/A*, and the overall pass rate at A* to C is at 69.8 per cent, it is hard to see that the exam carries out either task successfully.

At present, the only way for really good students to distinguish themselves is to take 16 GCSEs, and not all very bright people will have breadth rather than depth. What is needed is a two-tier system of great fluidity and no stigma, where pupils can move between the two qualifications in different subjects. Speaking as someone who failed one O-level and only scraped a bare pass in two other subjects, I would rather like to see a system where it didn't matter if you got a top O-level in Geography, but a basic CSE in French because you weren't that interested.

What we want is an education system which recognises the huge disparity in achievement and involvement in pupils, and stretches students limitlessly in areas they were interested in. Setting the universal level of attainment at mastering the sentence "I play football with my friends" in German is not doing anyone much of a service.

Political wives don't take a vow of silence

Valérie Trierweiler, the partner of the French President François Hollande, got herself into trouble last week. Hollande's former wife, Ségolène Royal, had been unceremoniously parachuted into La Rochelle to stand for parliament. A long-standing local socialist, Olivier Falorni, refused an order from the party's headquarters to stand down in favour of Royal; Trierweiler, who has little enthusiasm for Royal personally or politically, tweeted her support for Falorni before being ordered to withdraw and apologise.

I don't know why, but when people bring their spouses into the official residence, they are generally expected to limit their utterances to smiles and simpers. Samantha Cameron, Cherie Blair, Miriam Gonzalez Durante, Michelle Obama, even Carla Bruni are all highly able women, with strong views and professionally capable. Valérie Trierweiler is a well-respected political journalist.

The answer might be privacy. But few political spouses nowadays can emulate Angela Merkel's husband, Joachim Sauer, who continues his distinguished academic career with hardly a public appearance to his name. He seems to regard himself as a private figure, an option not open to most others in his position. We are just too interested in the adoring wives. But would the world really collapse if these spouses said, from time to time, "I totally disagree with my beloved husband on this issue?" What we are asking for is a strong-minded, professionally successful, beautifully dressed, mostly silent figure who never disagrees with her partner and yet would never dream of influencing him in political matters. That all seems a little bit too much to request.