So Michael Gove wants to reintroduce O levels. The question is - what percentage of pupils does he think this new (or should I say old) exam is for?
In the past, O levels were designed for grammar school pupils. When they first came in in 1951 only about 20 to 30 per cent of pupils took them. The rest did not have to sit any type of exam at all. You left school with nothing. In fact most pupils left the year before O levels. They did not stay on for the final year of school and left at 15. That did not change until 1972 when the school leaving age was raised to 16.
O levels were around for nearly 15 years before any other type of examination was introduced. Only in 1965 did the government think that perhaps the vast majority of pupils ought to have something to say they had been to school and so the CSE was born. But it was definitely inferior to the GCE O level. True, if you got a grade 1 you could claim that this was the same as an O level grade C, but its status was clear. You did CSE if you were not capable of doing an O level. It was a two-tier system. There was a very small elite at the top and then there were the rest.
When I started teaching, the average grade for all pupils was a grade 4 CSE for English. That is about the equivalent of a grade F at GCSE. As a result of this very stark statistic my then head of department decided that he was not going to enter pupils for two exams any more and was going to enter them for the Joint Matriculation Board's 16-plus exam instead. This meant that everybody would end up with the same qualification. The results were startling.
Substantially more pupils gained what would have been a grade C at O level. Two main reasons can be given for this. The first is that many children were capable of getting an O level grade but because you had to decide what qualification they were going to get at 14 you did not allow for the fact that they could be late developers. The other and perhaps the most significant reason is that in abandoning the false divide we gave them hope.
The transformative power of hope
Hope is a powerful thing in education. Finland, which is often quoted for its good results in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, has hope as part of its national curriculum. What we were in effect saying to those pupils was that we thought they might succeed. We gave them ambition. This is what the Tories thought when they introduced GCSEs. Sir Keith Joseph introduced the qualification because he believed that "it will stretch the able more and stretch the average more". In other words, it would help everybody improve.
And he was proved right. Grades got better more or less year on year until the present, where last year almost 70 per cent got A*-C grades. The phenomenal rise in GCSE grades cannot entirely be explained by the exams becoming ever easier. One reason for the success was that instead of the results being norm-referenced - so that only a certain percentage got an A and so on, as it was with O levels - pupils were judged by criteria. This meant that if you had done everything that satisfied the criteria for getting an A that is what you got, no matter how many other people had got an A too. This was deemed a much fairer system than the old O level, as, in effect, you got what you deserved. At O level, candidates who failed in the summer often retook in the November and passed.
But the other thing that changed was the hope that you could do better. Increasingly teachers convinced their pupils that it was worth hoping for more. If they tried hard enough, if they had their own private ambitions, they could succeed. It is true that GCSEs may need reforming. They may need a complete overhaul, but it is wrong to say to a 14-year-old that they have no hope of getting a qualification, which, by his own admission, Michael Gove thinks will be valuable.
So I ask Mr Gove again - what percentage of pupils is he going to write off? How many will he say do not have the intellectual rigour to take his oh-so-precious O levels? How will he convince the cohorts that are currently going through GCSEs that theirs is not a second-rate exam hardly worth the taking?
When the Tories introduced GCSEs everybody could see it was a better system. They did not have to say that the old exams were worthless in order to introduce the new ones. They were wanting to inspire us and tell us that we could all improve. Michael Gove has done the opposite. He is telling us that only a few can go on and be bright and the rest of us will have to sit dimly by and be depressed. I would rather have the flawed optimism of hope any day than the closet pessimism of Gove.
Dr Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education.