The return of the O level – I hope not!

I was at school before O levels were abolished in the late 1980s and I remember well the division between those taking O levels and those sitting CSEs.  In my comprehensive school very few of us sat O levels; the majority sat CSEs but CSEs were ridiculed back then and unless you achieved a 1 (which equated to an O level) you were often assumed to have failed.  But it wasn’t necessarily easy for those who sat O levels either.  Because we were in the minority we were often teased for being bright.  It became easier to conform to the peer pressure to clown around than to study and stand out academically.

Even if we did get O levels few of us went on to sixth form college.  We saw A levels as being for the posh kids in town who wanted to go on to university.  We were working class kids who had no idea how to aspire for professional jobs.  The word “professional” and “university” did not exist in our vocabulary and I kid you not when I say that I did not become aware that I was capable of a university education until a lot later in my life (a bitter sweet experience).  Instead we were structured to aim for the working class jobs for which O and A levels hardly seemed relevant.  Not surprisingly few left school with qualifications and those that did either went straight into work or trained for vocational qualifications at the local tech.  As for me, I left school and started work but for years I felt a failure, a miserable feeling that clouded my life for a long time until I returned to education as a mature student and discovered that I was academically able.

So when I heard about Gove’s plans to return to the days of the O level, I was appalled.  Do we really want to return to a two tier system which was so divisive and caused so many young people to feel a failure?  It’s easy when you are bright and have a bagful of O levels to feel smug about your achievements and look down on those who aren’t lucky enough to achieve such academic grandeur.  But vocational and technical skills are as important to our country as academic ability.  We need to value these skills and I can’t see how a return to a two tier system will achieve this.

For me the GCSE was a great way to bridge this divide and to prevent those less academic feeling like failures.  It is a more inclusive system and no one stands out for studying something different.  However, I do understand the argument that GCSEs may not be stretching the most able.  My eldest daughter has often complained that she was not stretched enough at school and that her GCSEs have not prepared her enough for the rigour of A levels.  So it seems that improvements should be made to challenge the more able but not at the expense of those less academic.

Furthermore, O levels are not as wonderful as Gove makes them out to be.  Back then everything was focused on your performance during the end of year exams.  Whatever you achieved during the previous two years hardly counted.  There was little opportunity for course work and the only subject I remember having an opportunity to write an extended essay in was for history which was a forerunner for the GCSE at the time.  I loved my study on the suffragettes; it was much more enjoyable than remembering a load of disjointed facts for an exam.

This is why I was pleased to see my elder daughter having an opportunity to do course work as part of her GCSEs last year.   Whilst there has been much criticism about the level of cheating over project work (particularly parents helping their children) I still think this is hugely important skill for our children to develop.   Course work gives children a chance to get into the subject much more and to present something not too dissimilar to presenting a report for work.  It also helps those who do not perform so well in exams but it should not be assumed to be an easy option.  Try writing an extended essay of 1000 words on Romeo and Juliet which is what my daughter had to do for her GCSE in English literature.  Not an easy task.

It fills me with dread that we could return to the bad old days of O levels and CSEs.  I want all three of my children to get a good education and to leave school feeling a success but I don’t want that success defined by whether or not they have an O level or ten.  I want them to feel happy with what they have achieved whether it is academic or vocational.  By all means adapt the GCSEs to stretch the academically able but please don’t return to the days of a divisive two tier system.

There is nothing worse than leaving school feeling a failure.  Education should empower young people, not crush them.


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4 Responses to The return of the O level – I hope not!

  1. I wrote about this myself as I’m really not happy about yet another decision potentially being made without consulting the people it affects most; the people who take the exams, and their parents. It won’t do our SEN kids any favours. Those in mainstream most likely won’t even be given a choice and CSE’s will be forced on them even if they are academically capable of O’Levels. Those in special schools, like my daughter, will never know what an O’Level and will therefore be treated, once they leave school, as the lesser individual, not as clever, better suited to the menial jobs. Again, this utterly useless government haven’t given a second’s thought to special needs and disabled children. They are disgusting.

    I did receive a number of comments on my post that strongly disagree with my opinion. I don’t judge their opinion but I suspect they didn’t have to worry about being branded as a thicko for only being able to take CSE’s, and I also suspect some don’t truly understand the impact this will have on special needs.

    CJ x

  2. I totally agree with you. I think that GCSE’s are a great leveller. There is no distinction and therefore much less opportunity for division in school. I can still remember an awful teacher at our school making snide comments about ‘only the CSE kids would behave like that’ – and that was a teacher!!! – I think it would be appalling to return to such a system. The worry is that they are already sneaking in these changes. B starts high school in September & we have friends with kids in yrs 8 and 9. The school has said that for the current yr 9s and beyond there will no longer be any coursework for GCSEs – all the exams will be taken at the end like we had to do years ago. The Head teacher has said that it is generally accepted that children will no longer be taking so many exams and grades are likely to drop, But they will still be taking GCSEs. The danger of that is that for the initial few years of doing that FE colleges, employers etc will have no clue that one young person will have taken exams with modules and coursework whilst someone else who may have fewer exams at lower grades will have just done final exams. So I do think that if they change the system they should change the name of the qualification to make it clear to all that this group of young people are being assessed by a different method. But I DO NOT agree with the changes and I certainly wouldn’t support a return to a two tier system.

  3. JuliesMum says:

    I agree with you Deb – but I’m just glad to see that its the return of Aspie in the Family to my inbox! You’ve been missed.

  4. Fiona says:

    I’m with you all the way! Personally I’m tired of an education system that only values our children as future employees and seems to relegate developing a whole rounded individual in to a poor second place. Like you I was subject to the two tier exam system and it destroyed my confidence. It’s too long a story to go into here but suffice it to say that it took a period of very difficult self authorization, A levels at evening class (after work) and a degree as a mature student to rectify the damage done by a system that led me to believe I ‘wasn’t good enough’. The GCE/CSE system stigmatized children and led some to give up trying. It’s a poor idea dreamed up by a government who originate from a world of private education, with little or no concept of the lives and aspirations of we lesser beings. Great post x

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