Back to the future… in examinations

By John Freeman

| 21 June 2012

A leak to the Daily Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, has revealed the Secretary of State’s intentions to ‘bring back O levels’. There are a number of elements to the proposals, as leaked, and they vary from the sensible to the daft… and there are some serious inconsistencies with other things that the Secretary of State has been saying and doing.

Let’s take the positives first.

Single national examination in mathematics, English and the sciences, as well as other subjects, is clearly a sensible approach. It will enable young people, colleges and universities, and employers to be able to compare like with like. The pressure on examination providers at present is to meet the regulatory requirements while keeping the pass rate as high as possible – this is a simple market share incentive, and is an inevitable consequence of the marketisation of the examination system. So Michael Gove is right to make this change – but in being right he is recognising that his own dogma, that the market will inevitably drive up standards, is fundamentally flawed.

More rigorous examinations and syllabi should also be welcomed, as should a return to end-of-course examinations. Some of the questions in GCSEs have been at a laughably low level, and the bite-sized modules in which they sit do not encourage any sort of deep understanding. And removing the ability to resit and resit until you pass is also clearly a good thing.

Having said that, O levels as they were – and that’s the system I followed – were not perfect either – I passed several O levels at grade 4, 5 or 6, gaining perhaps 55% of the possible marks, and certainly not achieving any sort of deep understanding. On the other hand, when I first took O level English I achieved grade 9, the lowest possible grade, and the second time, six months later, I still failed achieving grade 7. It was only on the third attempt that I achieved the pass, at grade 6, that I needed for university entry. (I only started to make any sort of success in English when I could type rather than write – my handwriting was, and is, awful. The technology has enabled me to bypass that block.)

So what are the issues?

For me, they are the same as when the GCSE was introduced. The notion of selecting children at age 13 seemed, and still seems, nonsensical. If my poor English had been allowed to prevent my university entry my life would have been very different. Even the Secretary of State recognises this – he lauds David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, the thesis of which is that anyone can succeed at anything. I disagree with David Shenk on some of the details of the argument, but he is broadly correct – and de-selecting children at age 13 it will lower their aspirations and expectations, and will thus actively stop them achieving at the highest levels.

There is also a powerful institutional implication for schools. The present assumption is that if a school does not hit its floor targets, it must, ipso facto, be failing. But the new assumption will be that if your population is weighted towards the low achievement end, you simply enter them for the lower-level examination. I understand fully the argument that we should not explain away failure – ‘What can you expect from children like these’. But at the same time we must recognise that achieving national average outcomes is a really tough challenge in schools serving deprived communities with low aspirations. This is a complex argument, and attempts to deal with it have not always worked – CVA, for example. But we can’t duck the issue.

So, while I welcome some elements, others are very unhelpful.  As always, however, it depends on how the changes are implemented. And never forget that people follow incentives – the trick is to make sure that the incentives work, and aren’t perverse.

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