Gove is wrong, we should scrap exams at 16 altogether

Posted on June 23, 2012 by | 2 Comments

The Conservative proposals to do away with GCSEs and re-introduce, in some form, a two tier O-Level / CSE-like system has understandably created controversy and distress among many critics and supporters of the coalition alike.

Once again teachers and teenagers find themselves subject to the idea that teaching standards are lower and exams easier than they used to be, and are understandably defensive about this. It can’t be nice to be in the middle of working on your exams and find the Secretary of State for Education essentially rubbishing your efforts and any results you might achieve.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, rightly said that “Michael Gove’s continual criticism of GCSEs as a ‘dumbed down’ examination is not only incorrect but also very offensive to those pupils and teachers who achieve great results every year. Getting rid of GCSEs and replacing them with the old O-Level and CSE qualifications could easily lower aspirations and exacerbate inequalities in society.

“The teaching profession must be properly consulted on such a crucial change in the examination system. Teachers are not mere ‘deliverers’ of knowledge but are there to inspire and motivate their students with a curriculum that is for everyone and not just for the few.”

Looking back at the previous system that GCSEs replaced Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, told Channel Four News that “What you had before 1988 was a system where O-levels were meant for the top 20 per cent [of pupils], and then in the mid-1960s CSEs were introduced, which were meant for the next 40 per cent, so covering 60 per cent of the population.

“The school-leaving age was raised to 16 and you had a lot of people talking about the inherent unfairness of having these two separate qualifications, (in) which ostensibly the lower end of one (CSE grade 1) was equivalent to a C grade at O-level. But nobody believed that – including employers.”

Michael Rosen, the well known children’s author and poet blogged that the proposals may mean “even more segregation, an even more rigid way of building selection into education. Michael Gove knows that he cannot universally re-introduce the 11-plus exam… So he brings it in by the back door. Any school admitting students who might not succeed in sitting a difficult O-level exam, would have to start streaming the students by 12 years old at the latest. In effect, this would re-introduce the 11-plus type exam – and its effects – within schools. And this wouldn’t just be the ‘setting’ that occurs now. It would create what would be in effect two schools under the same roof.”

However, no matter how unfairly, the current system certainly has a PR problem with the public, employers and in both Further and Higher Education. That public debate, in a nation generally dubious about decades of targets and figures, undermines all debates about education standards as many just don’t believe the numbers.

It may be worth asking the more fundamental questions though; what are the tests for and why have them at 16 at all?

With a small minority of pupils leaving school at 16 and as it becomes increasingly likely that school leaving age will be increased to 18 what is the role of either GCSEs or O levels in that situation rather than, say, a European style matriculation that simply allows continued education or indeed no nationally regulated tests at 16 at all? Teachers could move away from the routine of exam technique and get on with the business of educating.

Our kids have never been so tested, nor so taught to the test, but teachers have consistently opposed the introduction of more and more testing. Is this an opportunity to argue for less tests? Maybe it’s time simply to do away with GCSEs altogether and increase school leaving age to 18 with a decent range of academic and vocational qualifications available at that age.

Gove’s proposals would be a step back in time, entrenching the two tier education system that exists already, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a conversation about what kind of school system we want and whether exams at 16 are something that belong to the past.

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2 Responses to “Gove is wrong, we should scrap exams at 16 altogether”

  1. RobNo Gravatar
    June 23rd, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

    I think we should go much further and ask not only what GCSE’s are for but what school is for. It has little to do with education. Having watched my children grow up with no conventional schooling at all, with only minimal (ie a hour a day or so help with maths and a little english) from about 14 to enable them to go to college it is clear to me that the idea that children need 5 hours a day “teaching” from the age of 4 or 5 to learn maths, english reading etc is a myth.
    An explanation of how children learn autonomously by educationalist Alan Thomas can be found here.
    I would like schools to be recognised for what they really are ie daycare with some mostly negative learning that enforce and encourage a hard to escape hierachy. There is nothing wrong with daycare but it should be centred on providing a healthy safe and rich environment for the children.I would like schools to drop compulsory subjects and provide a wonderful supervised environment where children can be safe and not threatened by anyone, explore their interests, play, and interact freely on an equal level with kindly interested staff and with each other. I would like the inspiration for the schools to come more from people such as AS Neil (founder of Summerhill school, Ivan Illich and Oliver James rather than as it seems , the Daily Mail. I think Neill and James are right in believing than a self aware and happy childhood has a high correlation with self aware, fulfilled and compassionate adults and thus a decent society. Neill wrote “All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness” and I think he is probably right and that the main function of school should be to help children to be mentally healthy ( which will include being happy). All other skills the child needs for a fulfilling life can be learnt by their choice if given the opportunities and encouragement to develop those skills, I am convinced.

  2. SteveNo Gravatar
    June 24th, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    As a teacher of many years with a young child, I agree with Rob’s comments about the function of schools. It’s an opinion I probably held even before I started teaching.

    Unfortunately way too few people have the time, inclination, desire and ability to teach their own children at ‘home’. Even teachers who don’t need all the money seem very keen to farm their children out in the day to nurseries etc. And way too many are I’m afraid, entirely unsuitable. So we’re stuck with schools.

    Sadly, another teacher and I used to joke that despite five years in the care of our school, a few pupils still managed to come out of it ok.

    Although I sympathise with the values and approach, I don’t think this is something that the public will see and value in and is definitely something that the media would jump on from a height.