Education & Family

Q&A: Why might we be returning to O-level style exams?

A row has broken out between the Lib Dems and Conservatives over plans to scrap GCSEs in England. Education Secretary Michael Gove is considering scrapping GCSEs and replacing them with O-level style exams. We look at some of the arguments behind the proposals being reported.

Why might we be returning to O-level style exams?

Mr Gove is considering plans to overhaul the secondary school exam system for England because he says although academic progress has been made, the country has been slipping back when compared with high-achieving nations such as Finland and Singapore.

He is said to want to replace GCSEs, which are usually taken by 15 and 16-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as by students abroad.

The proposal, revealed in a leak to the Daily Mail newspaper, is for most pupils to take O-level style exams in traditional academic subjects such as English, maths, the humanities and science after two years of study. Less academic children would take simpler qualifications similar to old-style CSEs.

What were O-levels and CSEs?

O-levels were brought in with A-levels (the letters are short for Ordinary and Advanced) in 1951 and were last taken in the UK in 1987. Until the 1950s, children had left school with leaving certificates.

As England at that time had a selective system, with grammar schools and secondary moderns, O-levels were mainly taken by pupils in grammar schools or private schools.

CSEs (Certificates of Secondary Education) were brought in in 1965 and were initially taken by pupils who were in secondary moderns, not grammars or private schools.

Until that time, the majority of school pupils at secondary moderns had left without any formal qualifications, according to the website

From the mid-1960s, most grammars changed to become comprehensives under Labour and more schools began to offer students O-levels or CSEs depending on their ability and the individual school.

Why were they replaced?

They were replaced in the mid 1980s by the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which was aimed at providing an exam which would cover the broad spectrum of ability.

CSEs were graded with numbers and O-levels with letters.

The new qualification had grades from A* to G (with a U grade for unclassified results). It was first taught from 1986 and the first exams were taken in 1988.

GCSEs are available in both academic and vocational subjects.

Some GCSEs have two tiers, so pupils can either be entered for the foundation level - which is the simpler of the two and maximum grade achievable is a C - or the higher level, where students can achieve up to an A*.

What criticism has there been of them?

Although they were intended to be a qualification for all, grades of less than a C soon came to be seen as a fail. Only A* to C grades were seen as "good". League tables were based on the percentage of pupils achieving five good GCSEs and more recently, five good GCSEs including maths and English.

As this happened, the number of "equivalent" qualifications mushroomed. These are vocational qualifications which under Labour came to be worth the equivalent of several GCSEs in the league tables.

Criticism has centred on claims that GCSEs have got easier over time - something hotly denied by the companies who design the exams, Labour and until recently, England's exams watchdog.

Critics say the exams required less knowledge than O-levels; supporters that they were exams for modern times, which tested application of knowledge as well as hard facts.

The claims were fuelled by successive rises in the proportion of students passing and getting top marks.

But teachers, heads, the exam boards and other supporters say the rise has been due to better teaching and training in exam techniques and because students are working harder than ever.

The modular nature of some GCSEs, the course work involved in some and the increased opportunities for re-sits also came under fire.

A key criticism has been of the way the whole system is structured, with exam boards - private companies - competing to attract schools to their GCSEs.

Mr Gove said this led to a "race to the bottom" because schools might be attracted to qualifications with a higher pass rate. Standards are meant to be overseen and maintained by the exams regulator - Ofqual in England and similar organisations in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Would new-style O-levels be tougher?

That is difficult to assess until we know exactly what Mr Gove has in mind. The plans are going to be put out for consultation. Government sources say they will be more challenging, not least because in key subjects, the exams would be set by just one exam board, which would tender for the role.

Will exams outside of England be devalued?

That depends on lots of factors. It appears that the new qualifications could run alongside the existing ones in England and that schools would choose which ones to enter their pupils for. So the picture within England itself could be mixed.

Control of education in the UK is devolved and Mr Gove's plans are for England only. It would be up to Wales and Northern Ireland to decide whether to follow suit. If they decided not to, there could be seen to be tiers of qualifications.

The Welsh government is consulting on whether new qualifications for 14-16-year-olds should replace GCSEs or whether Wales should follow what happens in England.

However, the Education Minister for Wales, Leighton Andrews, has said Wales will not return to O-level-style exams.

In Scotland, pupils take Standard Grades, Highers and Advanced Highers rather than GCSEs and A-levels.

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