Martin Parsons is currently director of faculty of the UK’s newest sixth form college in Lowestoft, Suffolk. He has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject. He is currently writing a further book on Conservativism and Christianity and is a member of the parliamentary candidates list
First, when we had O-levels 70% of students gaining places at Oxford and Cambridge came from state schools. For students educated in the GCSE system that figure has fairly consistently fallen to around 50%. It is not easy to separate out the impact of O levels and the grammar schools who taught many of them as both ended up being abolished in roughly the same period of time. However, both point to the fact that a rigorous exam curriculum is a more effective way of both increasing social mobility and the number of state educated students at leading universities, than the dumbing down of entry standards that both Labour the Liberal Democrats seem intent on pursuing.
Secondly, as I recently observed on ConservativeHome, research by Professor Robert Coe of Durham University has shown that for the last 20 years, up to and including 2011, both GCSE and A level exams have become 10% of a grade easier every year. In other words, they are now at least two grades easier So, what now gets a GCSE grade C would have only been at best a CSE grade 3 at the time that CSEs were replaced by GCSEs.
Professor Coe is one of the UK’s most respected educationalists who directs an educational research centre on which virtually all sixth forms rely to predict students’ potential A level grades. My own experience as a teacher confirms his conclusions, as I have found myself introducing subjects to A level students that I myself learnt at O level.
There is a third factor that is also significant here. Michael Gove has very rightly been pushing forward a reform of A levels that will make them more challenging. However, more challenging A levels will of necessity require a more challenging exam at 16. Otherwise, students will not be adequately prepared for starting the new A level. This in turn will require reform of the key stage 3 (years 7-9) curriculum. What Michael Gove is doing is very impressive, he is making A levels more rigorous knowing that having done so, the only sound educational approach is to mirror that change down the system.
This is exactly what happened in reverse when GCSEs were introduced. At that time I was a newly qualified teacher. The year after we had introduced the new GCSE syllabus, we then had to introduce new schemes of work for the three secondary school years before GCSE, the following year we then had to introduce a new A level syllabus suitable to follow on from GCSE. In short, within three or four years the whole secondary curriculum had been changed by the introduction of GCSE.
That is exactly the impact that the introduction of more rigorous A levels will have. It will force a more academically rigorous curriculum to become embedded right across the secondary school age range. What Michael Gove is doing is quite brilliant. If he succeeds in reforming A levels, he will have forced the liberal dominated educational establishment to reform itself all the way down the secondary system.
What is most interesting about the proposal to reintroduce exams of similar academic rigour to O levels is the widespread assumption that this also means the reintroduction of CSEs, instead of GCSEs. Actually, the reintroduction of O level standard exams does not require the abolition of GCSEs at all and there are very sound educational as well as political reasons for not doing so.
The reason that GCSEs were introduced was not because there was a problem with O levels, but because there was a problem with CSEs. It is also important to emphasise that GCSEs, whatever their current faults did contain many innovative and good educational practices which genuinely helped pupils learn better than they had done previously. It is the persistent grade inflation and lowering of exam standards that is the problem.
As Professor Coe’s research suggests that a C grade GCSE today is broadly comparable in difficulty to a CSE grade 3 at the time they were replaced by GCSEs, the easiest course of action is simply to retain GCSEs, but introduce a new exam of comparable standard to O levels for the brightest of our young people.
Politically, l reqthis would require no new primary legislation and would be significantly more difficult for either the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats to argue against. It would also be almost impossible for any non Conservative government in the near future to abolish. Moreover, it would, as I have argued, force the educational establishment to embed academic rigour right across the entire secondary age range.
That I believe is the brilliance of Michael Gove’s proposal – lasting reform of the secondary school system that would be almost impossible for a subsequent government to reverse.