Thoughts on the return of O Levels

Earlier this week Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that he was considering the return of O Levels.  I was rung up by the local radio station and gave a quick, impromptu view on this topic but have decided to expand on this in this post. I would stress that these are very much personal views and given that the government has yet to publish its proposals very much a reaction to the headlines in the press.

The current GCSE examination has as its core purpose to be an exam which is suitable for all students at age 16.  Thus, it is inevitable that it is something of a compromise.  I would welcome the return to an exam which is designed to deal more effectively with the assessment of bright students.  However, the key here is that work is done on the subject material to make it interesting and challenging. For far too long the examination boards have dominated what is taught in our schools. Assessment has driven the curriculum. Schools should assist in the development of interesting courses as the prime aim.  These should challenge pupils of all abilities, be suitable preparation for further study and equip them with the life skills required to be successful in the 21st century.  Once the content and challenge of the courses has been successfully resolved then we can start to look at what is the most effective way of assessing this material.  At present the exam boards have too much influence, they write the exams, they set the content and often they are involved in producing the course books.

Another important factor for the future of all exams must be top quality assessment. There are far too many occasions when schools feel let down by the quality of marking.  Recruiting the best teachers as markers means paying them a professional rate for their time and reducing the overall number of exams would mean the ability to ensure that there is no dilution of the quality of marking in any area.

I also believe that there should not be the opportunity for multiple resits.  I am not against the modular system as such but feel that there should be no more than one resit of each examination.  This would give employers and universities a much greater understanding of the ability of candidates to cope with pressure and to perform.  In life we rarely get the opportunity to have multiple goes at getting something right.  The exception to this is the driving test but here it is a relatively simple set of basic skills which need to be acquired, academic rigour should not be tested in the same way.

The key to all exams is that they are suitable for the ability of the students who sit them.  There must also be genuine compatibility between examination boards and if this is impossible I would support the introduction of a single exam board as long as this was independent of both publishers and government.  Why do we not have a group looking after school examinations in the way that the Bank of England looks after interest rates? Taking the politics out of education and maintaining high standards over the decades would be important steps forward.

I also believe that there is a pressing need to develop vocational courses and exams which have real value to them.  The academic nature of either GCSEs or O Levels is not for everyone but the vocational qualifications have to be as well respected and recognised if those sitting them are not to be let down.  Let employers have an input to decide what skills need to be taught and build the course first, then devise the appropriate assessment system to give it real value in the wider world.  Those following such a vocational path though should also have to do core subjects such as Maths and English to ensure that everyone receives the important grounding in these areas.

Thus, whatever exam system emerges from this initiative it is vital that it is built on interesting and challenging courses suitable for drawing out the potential of all students.  It should not be driven by ease of assessment but by providing experiences in classrooms which are inspirational to all students.  We should ensure that our exam system is monitored independently, we should pay our examiners well and we should ensure that the grading system is understood by all with genuine comparability across the years and across the exam boards if there are to be more than one.  With all students soon having to stay in education to the age of 18 there is a real opportunity for us to think creatively about the preparation that we want them to have before embarking on either A Level or higher vocational courses.  The key focus though should be on the creation of inspirational courses rather than on the method of assessing them.  It would be good to think that in future government targets for schools would not revolve around how many students schools can get over the C grade border but that schools would be judged according to how effectively they have got the best out of each student both in and out of the classroom.  Well-rounded, interesting students with a passion for learning would emerge from genuinely interesting and challenging courses appropriate for their ability.