‘O’ levels versus GCSEs

I have 11 ‘O’ and 2 ‘Advanced Ordinary’ (AO) GCEs to my name, so I reckon I was in the upper decile of that exam system before it was replaced by the GCSE.

GCE Certificate - History Ordinary
GCE Certificate – History Ordinary (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

But I have no love for it and the proposal that it or something like it should be brought back is populist pose-striking.

The argument seems to be that a GCSE course is modular and involves coursework it is less rigorous than an exam-only qualification (like the ‘O’ level).

Presumably all holders of masters degrees and doctorates should now regard their qualifications – based on rigour-lacking ‘coursework’ – as worthless?

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has his bachelor’s degree from Oxford – where one simply buys a master’s degree: so perhaps he’s mistaken that ‘qualification’, if he has it, for a real one?

Exam-only qualifications are poor preparation for university in any case, where all degrees are modular and re-sits (another supposed crime of the GCSE) are common.

The hidden agenda here, though, seems to be to replace a standards-based qualification – ie where the GCSE measures if one has reached a certain proficiency in a subject – with a normative based one – in other words only a fixed percentage being able to pass or reach a given grade. In that sense this would be a worse option than the ‘O’ level, where one’s proficiency was being measured.

Most people are worried – rightly – that the move may be a cover to reintroduce the two-tier exam system that the GCSE replaced. Then lesser mortals were set the CSE exam which, despite its top grade being an equivalent to the GCE, marked them out as ‘failures’ regardless of their results. Bringing that or anything like it back would be hugely regressive: but I do not think even Gove is that stupid given the massive negative reaction when he floated just such an idea. But justified relief at this should not be allowed to obscure the other nasties in the package.


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