O-level plans spark fears of 'backward step' for FE

Pupils seen to have 'failed' would end up in colleges, critics argue

Stephen Exley

Education secretary Michael Gove's contentious plans to bring back O levels could have major and damaging consequences for the FE sector, college leaders have warned.

For a sector often portrayed by its critics as offering a second-rate alternative to more academic routes, restoring a two-tier system - with about three-quarters of students expected to take a more rigorous O level and the remainder sitting a less demanding new qualification akin to the CSE - will create obvious risks, opponents have said.

Mike Hopkins, principal of Middlesbrough College, fears that Mr Gove's "sheep and goats solution" could lead to students being classed as successes or failures before their 16th birthdays. And many of the teenagers steered down the CSE track would then be likely to end up in colleges.

This is a scenario that is all too familiar to Mr Hopkins. "I was one of those people," he said. "I got three O levels; I was seen to have failed.

"All of a sudden, I'm a senior civil servant and a principal. Most people are capable of doing great things with a bit of support. I don't think it's a good thing to go back to a system from 30 years ago."

While FE and skills minister John Hayes has spoken frequently of his ambition that high-quality vocational options such as apprenticeships should earn parity of esteem with academic qualifications, adult learning charity Niace's chief executive David Hughes feels that Mr Gove's intervention is a step in the wrong direction.

"This might just make things worse," he said. "The impact on learners would be enormous. Schools would have to start setting students differently at 14, maybe even at 12 or 13. The mindset would be completely different. It feels like a backward step.

"We think that GCSE English and maths are critical for all young people at the moment, and this could mean saying that some people won't get anywhere near it. What message are we trying to send out to people?"

Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel also raised concerns about Mr Gove's "back to the future" proposals. "I am not aware of anyone in the colleges sector who was consulted on this proposal," he said.

Mr Doel questioned the need to create two separate qualifications and criticised the way the idea was leaked to the Daily Mail without proper consultation.

However, he did welcome the proposal to radically slim down the national curriculum in secondaries. With colleges now able to recruit students before they take their GCSEs, Mr Doel believes this could allow providers to create a more appropriate programme of work for students who have been turned off by mainstream schooling.

"We have young people progressing to college at 14 years old, full-time. Not having to comply with an overly prescriptive curriculum is something I would welcome," he added.

But this appears to be the only ray of light for colleges. When pressed that his proposals amounted to a step back in time, Mr Gove last week told the Commons: "Far from it, these are an attempt to ensure our education system stands comparison with the world's most rigorous."

Many in the FE sector are still to be convinced.

Gove's proposals

From September 2014, pupils will study for "explicitly harder" O-level-style exams in English, maths, physics, chemistry and biology. Qualifications in history, geography and modern languages could follow.

Academically weaker pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs. The national curriculum in secondary schools will be abolished, as will the benchmark of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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