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.