Time to bury O levels

1st June 2012 at 01:00
From The TES archive - June 12, 1987

The hullabaloo of the hustings overshadowed the school examinations season this year. But most exam candidates will be well aware that their situation has been a historic one, for they are the last to sit the CSE and GCE O level examinations, save any autumn repeaters.

In the public's perception, CSE will be the least mourned of these extinct species. And yet a study of the different hopes and intentions for both these exams suggests that in many ways it is the exam for the average ability pupil that is the success story.

True, it was despised and reviled by those employers who were ignorant of the intended differences between the two levels. Many could not grasp that the expansion of opportunities in higher education meant they were increasingly fishing in a pool of diminished achievement.

It was largely under the aegis of the CSE that experential learning, oral work, and teacher and continuous assessment were developed: techniques which were taken on board by many GCE boards and which have now been imposed on the GCSE.

Proposed in 1960 by the Beloe report, the CSE was to be the examination for the soon-to-be-doomed secondary moderns. It was largely under the control of teachers, as the GCE was intended to be, and it was in CSE that real advances were made towards making the examination follow the curriculum: a goal that the 1941 Norwood committee had hoped the replacement of the School Certificate would achieve.

But it was the GCE's academic style and standards - in fact higher than the old School Certificate - which set the pace. Even in 1978, HM Inspectorate was still complaining in its secondary survey that the curriculum was distorted by exams. The Cockcroft Committee, too, regretted the influence of O level on CSE mathematics.

A "pale imitation of GCE" was what CSE was specifically not meant to be. But almost immediately after its launch, Crosland's Circular 1065 set off the drive both for comprehensive organization and a striving for academic respectability to sustain it in the face of competition with the selective system. That, along with the coupling of CSE Grade 1 to GCE, meant it was the O level that provided the locomotive for the 16-plus train.

It is easy to say now, with a GCSE in hindsight, that had we listened to those who argued against the CSE and in favour of broadening the target group for O level, the years that followed would have been less divisive.

In fact, it is probable that there would have been less examination and curricular innovation without the CSE and a further sharpening of the divide between those who ended five years of secondary education with something to show for it and those who had nothing.

The O level represents 35 years of solid academic achievement and a gradient of opportunity for which many were grateful. And it is imputing no incompetence or malice aforethought to those responsible for it that its effects have not been wholly benign.

The old School Certificate it replaced was a grouped examination ensuring a certain amount of breadth in the curriculum. This breadth continued to some extent with the GCE to begin with. In small grammar schools, a broad common curriculum was the most economical form of organization.

But comprehensive schools were bigger and their a la carte curricula led to the position we find ourselves in now, having to claw back a broad curriculum via centralized control.

But probably the most important O level failure was the neglect of the Norwood plan to split the award into two parts. One was to be a record of examination successes; the other a record of pupils' other experiences and achievements in schools - something else that is now being introduced largely as a result of Government intervention.

It is therefore appropriate that, when we compare expectations with achievements, we come not to praise O level but to bury it.

Related article, 21 June 2012: Revolutionary for sure, but has Mr Gove really thought this through?


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