Please reconsider your disastrous O-level plans, Mr Gove

Francis Gilbert

Many teachers hearts sank this week when they heard that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is plotting to bring back O levels. Old lags like me who've been knocking around in classrooms for decades know that that compared to the old O levels, GCSEs are enlightened qualifications - and I say that as a harsh critic of our current GCSEs. Everything that is wrong with our GCSE system is magnified times ten in the old O levels. And I should know, because I was one of the last cohorts in the 1980s to take these miserable exams.

Firstly and most importantly, O levels are very unfair and fuel social segregation. The rationale behind them is that only an `elite' takes them. In my day, three out of ten 16-year-olds took O levels, while the remaining 70 per cent of pupils were condemned to take the sub-standard Certificate of Secondary Education, or CSE. The bottom line was - and will be - that the children from prosperous homes mainly took O levels, while poorer children were lumped with the CSE or no qualification at all. Furthermore, O levels are not marked in a fair way; they are a `norm-referenced' qualification, which means that only a certain percentage will achieve an A grade, another given percentage a B grade and so on, regardless of the standards achieved by the pupils.

Secondly, O levels are very narrow in what they assess; children are tested by a pen and paper exam, which usually requires robotic rote-learning. Their syllabi do not usually include the more enlightened aspects of the GCSEs such as assessment by coursework and oral presentations. Yes, I know there are problems with coursework - cheating can be too easy - but this, in my view, is no reason to jettison it entirely, as I know from bitter experience. A few years ago, when I was a head of department feeling cheesed off with coursework, I made my students sit a solely exam-based GCSE in English and noticed that my students just didn't acquire the broader skills of researching, problem-solving and time-management that coursework, at its best, instils. Worried by this, our department returned to coursework by controlled assessment recently and we've all noticed results improving.

The top education systems in the world, such as Finland, enable teachers to tailor their assessments to fit the needs of their pupils; schools thrive when teachers are given this sort of freedom. A return to O levels will strip teachers of independence and ultimately lead to a massive drop in standards. I would like to beg Michael Gove to reconsider these disastrous proposals.

Francis Gilbert is a secondary school teacher in an outer-London comprehensive

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