From The Editor - A testing point for the Talleyrand of our times

29th June 2012 at 01:00

"What did he mean by that?" the Austrian diplomat Metternich is reputed to have said of Talleyrand when he heard the French statesman had died. The reported resurrection of O levels and CSEs last week was just as clear. Were they back or not? Was it high-grade policy or low-level politics? Was it a clever gambit or an almighty cock-up?

The news certainly delighted the Right, infuriated almost everyone else and left pupils wondering if their GCSEs were obsolete before examiners had got round to marking them. Interestingly, according to our survey, teachers are not implacably opposed to all the leaked proposals (pages 8-9). There are widespread doubts about GCSEs. Forty per cent do not think they are fit for purpose, more than half believe they don't stretch bright pupils and almost two-thirds want to abolish multiple exam boards. But 63 per cent of teachers are vehemently opposed to reinventing O levels and 71 per cent disapprove of CSEs.

Those findings neatly frame the problem: how do you devise a credible exam that a majority of children could attempt to pass? It's not difficult to come up with a test that fails vast numbers of pupils, an obvious point that nevertheless seems to escape traditionalists. As Bethan Marshall notes (pages 44-45), the old system was less renowned for catering to the able than it was notorious for saddling most pupils with a despised qualification nobody took seriously.

That dangerous lefty Sir Keith Joseph introduced GCSEs precisely because he wanted to "stretch the able more and stretch the average more". A single exam open to all gives pupils ambition; it motivates the less gifted to try to succeed because success isn't put beyond their reach. And it works.

What hasn't worked so well is the other part of the equation - stretching the academically able. And what, if anything, do you do with the bottom cohort of pupils stuck with poor GCSE grades?

After a week of monumental confusion, the government offered some clarification. In short: it does not want a two-tier system, it wants a single exam. It does not want to place "a cap on ambition" or divide children into "sheep and goats". The spanking new, improved O level will be more rigorous but the aim is for 80 per cent of pupils to pass it. Slower learners will simply take the test later, as they do in Singapore, this week's Finland. Details of a qualification for the bottom cohort remain obscure, but we are assured that it will develop from a common curriculum, not be separate from it.

It all sounds reasonable, if ambitious. In fact, if you substituted the word "exam" for "school" one could imagine that the secretary of state was making a passionate plea for comprehensives and against selection. "I think one of the most debilitating things in our entire education system has been the idea that you make judgements early in a child's career about what they're fit for." Quite.

So a proposal that initially excited the Right may end up cheering progressives. And that is the government's dilemma. Is Michael Gove a reforming wolf in conservative sheep's clothing, or a traditionalist masquerading as a radical? He has skilfully sidestepped the question, but at some point he will have to 'fess up, stop playing a dead Talleyrand and disappoint someone.

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