The Question That Gove Forgot To Ask About GCSEs

22nd June 2012

Earlier this week I reproached Gove’s suggested A-Level reforms for failing to adequately address a real problem in education. Thankfully he avoided this in his next spectacle and the ‘leak’ that exposed Gove’s planned GCSE reforms hit upon some very  real problems for secondary education. First, many people do believe GCSEs to be worthless; correctly they argue GCSEs don’t adequately challenge the brightest pupils and a good glut of young people leave with only a handful of Fs and Gs that tend to work against pupils in the labour market rather than in their favour. Secondly, teachers do often choose to exam boards with ‘easier content’ in order to give their pupils the best chance of scoring highly and getting onto the best A-Level courses, and it is also true that some exam boards have actively made things easier because the more entries they get the more they can flog their textbooks, training, resources, etc.

So the problems are out on the table, the big solution is “Bring Back the O-Level”, give me a celebratory dance and victory for Gove, right?

Not quite. The next question in the policy-creating chain must always be: Why has no one implemented this solution before? It’s a very important question, as I learned on my first day as teacher.  Entering my classroom I was horrified to find the previous teacher had stuck posters all over the windows.  Problem? The room was dingy and the posters ugly. Solution?  Pull them down.  Five minutes later the posters were gone, my room was beautifully lit and I felt triumphant. That triumph lasted until approximately 1pm when the sun moved and streamed straight into the delicate eyes of my Year 9s. They couldn’t see, they became hot, I became hot, they wanted to move seats, nothing on the whiteboard showed up, and so on.  Turns out there was a very good reason for those ugly posters after all and by 3pm I was sheepishly re-tracing my steps with a very crumpled pile of paper and some sellotape in tow.

Hence, if Gove wants to scrap GCSEs he needs to explain how the O-Levels will not fall prey to the problems that previously hampered them. Problems such as:  If exams are not ‘for everyone’ what else will be adequately motivating and useful for students deemed ‘not able’?  Who will decide how pupils are labelled ‘not able enough for O-Levels’ and at what point will this take place? Will there be some kind of appeal?  Will it be possible for a school to decide not to offer the ‘lower’ exam? Or not offer the higher exam?!  In the 1980s no-one could answer these questions in a way that promoted social justice, hence it was agreed that all students would sit the same exams and would be graded on a longer scale.  There are now some thorny consequences of the change to GCSEs – and yes, they must be dealt with – but going back to the O-Level system won’t solve the original problems and crossing fingers while hoping they won’t reappear again is nothing more than magical thinking.

Writing good educational policy involves solving current problems while also ensuring previous problems remain solved.  If Gove simply pulls down the things he doesn’t like without thinking about why they were first created he will soon find, much like myself, that he is scrabbling around in the trash trying to sellotape over the predictable cracks in his system.  When thoughtless mistakes are made about posters it is stupid but defensible; thoughtless mistakes in education policy are not.