Farewell to St Trinian's, goodbye to the GCSE

The English exam system has returned to its Eighties elitism. Now testing at 16 must stop, says Judith Judd
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The General Certificate of Secondary Education is the exam that died. It died so quietly that nobody noticed. Its enemies moved in slowly, chipping away until they had finished it off and its supporters were too weary to resist. Around 600,000 students take it each year. They think the exam is still alive, but they are wrong. It is no longer the test they think it is and, for those at the bottom, it is a waste of time.

The story began in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power and proposals were already in place from Shirley Williams, Labour's Secretary of State for Education, for a new common exam for all that would replace O-level and the Certificate of Secondary Education. Instinctively, the Conservatives were against it. They saw it as a plot by egalitarian teachers which would lower standards.

But the teachers persisted. They argued that the O-level, though valued by parents and employers, was a highly academic exam designed only for the top 25 per cent of the ability range. CSEs for pupils of average ability were fine except that no one, including employers, thought they were worth much. For the bottom 40 per cent of children, there was nothing at all. The talents of thousands of children were being wasted, teachers suggested, and the nation's economic prosperity was at stake.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education, arch free marketeer, friend of Margaret Thatcher, was by nature an academic who liked to decide issues on their intellectual merit. Teachers persuaded him to back the GCSE. He demanded and received from civil servants and school inspectors assurances that bright children would still be stretched and that, in some subjects at least, the brightest would take separate papers.

Tory suspicions remained. George Walden, former Conservative education minister and backbench MP, asked in the Commons in 1984 whether the new exam, combining O-levels and CSEs, involved "merging up or merging down". Perhaps only Sir Keith could have convinced them that it was not the latter. He was, after all, "one of us".

In 1988, the first candidates sat the new exam. While ministers insisted that the standards of the old O-level would be maintained, the exam itself was very different. In most subjects, course work - done in class or at home and marked by pupils' own teachers - accounted for at least 25 per cent of the marks and in some subjects all the marks. Teachers said that this was a much fairer way of testing children's ability and motivation. Those who did well in short final exams might not necessarily do as well if they had to sustain the performance throughout a two-year course.

There were other differences too. In maths, modern languages and some science syllabuses, there were extra papers for the brightest children. In most subjects there were not. There were common papers and students' performance was to be determined by their answers rather than the questions. Wherever possible, teachers were determined to avoid dividing pupils into sheep and goats before they started their examination courses as they had done for O-level and CSE. That, they said, would limit ambition and aspiration. The public and employers had discounted those who took CSE. Teachers wanted all GCSE candidates to have the same chance.

Even before the first results were published, the exam came under attack from the right-wing media and Conservative MPs. Course work was seen as a cheats' charter. How could the exam boards be sure that it was the pupils' own work? How could they know that all teachers were operating the same standards? Sir Rhodes Boyson, Conservative MP and former education minister, later remarked that GCSE marks were improving because the whole family now sat round the table and did the exam.

The common papers were also a target. Because they were taken by pupils of a very wide range of ability, the first few questions were often very easy. Newspapers mocked them.

When the first set of results came out in 1988, a higher proportion of children were getting grades A - C, the equivalent of the old O-level grades. Year by year, the improvement in results continued and so did the warfare between the teachers and backbench Conservatives. The former argued that the better results were due to increased motivation and harder work because more pupils were worried about getting jobs. The latter said the exam and its marking were getting easier. They spoke of reports of pupils from fee-paying schools getting strings of A grades and the perennial complaints of employers that no-one could spell or punctuate any more.

Ministers were in a dilemma. They were desperate not to appear soft on standards but they could not abolish an exam that they had themselves so recently created. And to knock the achievements of 16-year-olds was politically crazy.

But, step by step, they began to dismantle the exam. In 1992, John Major announced that course work would be drastically reduced: in no subject would it account for all the marks and in most it would be only 20 per cent.

Behind the scenes, plans were set in motion to divide up papers so that in a vast majority of subjects there would be levels for able and less able children. In some subjects, there would be three tiers - for the brightest, average and below-average children. Teachers would have to decide which tier or level of difficulty children should take in exactly the same way as they had decided who should take O-level and CSE. In some subjects, the decision could be left until later in the course than it had been in O-level days, but pupils who were entered for the lower tiers would not be eligible for the higher grades whatever their performance in the exams.

To deal with the complaints that the exam was too easy for clever children, John Patten, who became Secretary of State for Education in 1992, introduced a new grade. The very brightest would be able to get not only an A but an A*. Ministers might argue that it was useful to pick out the top 2 per cent. Nobody agreed. Even the independent schools, some of whom had joined in the attack on GCSE, were horrified. Their high-fliers were already under enough pressure, they said. They spoke of weeping pupils, distressed that they had scored "only" A.

And if we were going to start picking out groups of children, why not pick out the ones at the bottom who needed special help. How about a starred G or a starred F? High-fliers, after all, had always done well in the English education system. Yet every international study showed that it was the children at the bottom of the heap which English schools failed.

The reinvention of O-level proceeded apace, helped by the Government's performance tables of exams. These recorded school GCSE scores at all grades but the only ones that counted for most newspapers were the proportion awarded grades A - C. Employers, too, were sceptical about any grade below C.

It was true that a higher proportion of children received top grades than in O-level days - 43.5 per cent with 5 A - Cs - but that still left a lot of pupils firmly on the scrapheap.

Now, as the nation prepares to debate yet again whether exam standards at 16 are rising or falling, the English exam system is back where it was in the mid-Eighties: divisive, elitist, catering well for those at the top and discounting those at the bottom. Pupils are slotted neatly into their allotted tier. League tables have enshrined the status of A - C grades. A few, much-criticised, vocational qualifications are finding their way into schools but, in status, they are no match for GCSE.

The reports on our pupils' poor performance in international comparative studies continue to come in. Research into maths performance by Newcastle University's Professor David Reynolds shows that, while we do well post- 16, there is an alarmingly "long tail" of under-achievement before that. A report on international reading standards last week pointed to the English neglect of the same tail.

The original model of GCSE had its flaws. From the first some doubted, rightly, that it was possible to devise an exam for children of all abilities: 20 per cent fail to score even G, the bottom grade, in English and maths. Exams that were 100 per cent course work could never have been made credible to a sceptical public.

But the current model is worse. An academic exam at the end of compulsory schooling which fails to give half its pupils either motivation or a qualification that really counts is no good.

The irony is that the GCSE exam was unnecessary. Even when it was introduced, it was already out of date. An exam at 16 is the last thing a nation needs when it is trying to encourage a higher proportion of its pupils to stay longer in education and training. For pupils in America and most of Europe there is no important public exam at 16: the first big hurdle comes at 18. In this country, for parents, employers and the general public the notion of a school-leaving certificate at 16 persists. We need to persuade the vast majority that secondary education goes from 11 to 18.

If pupils do leave school for work at the age of 16, the GCSE is of little use. What employers want to know is not whether school leavers have a grade E in geography or a D in drama but whether they can spell, punctuate and add up. A basic skills certificate would be a much more appropriate qualification.

Those at the top will simply go on to A-level and higher education and flourish as they have always done. For them, a string of A*s at 16 is neither here nor there.

The old-style GCSE is dead and it is time to bury the new one.