I can understand why various Sec States for Education keep harking back to O Levels. GCSEs in their current form no longer work (if only because so many children now achieve the highest possible grades that the exams become valueless as a means for employers to sift between candidates) and O Levels marked a golden age in education.
Except that it really wasn’t anything of the sort, of course.
O Levels (or GCEs) were for the already academically minded. Mainly exam based, they favoured boys over girls; the former were more suited to a cramming style exam rigour while the latter have traditionally been better at coursework based assessment (so, unsurprisingly, the change from O Levels to GCSEs meant that suddenly girls were beating boys in pretty much all subjects, including the previously male dominated sciences and PE). Anyone for whom (the school decided) GCEs might be too rigorous would be diverted to CSEs. CSEs were introduced to ensure that even the less able student achieved a qualification on leaving school - before their introduction the majority of less able students simply didn't take GCEs and so left school without any qualifications at all. But CSEs were the death knell for any ambition to the professions; yes, I know that people could, and sometimes did, go from a few CSEs to night school, further qualifications, into a polytechnic and into a profession, but... it was difficult, it was time consuming, and required a considerable force of will.
The whole ethos of 70s and 80s education was about splitting children into those who would, and those who wouldn’t. Clever ones in this pile, not so clever ones in this pile. The more able took GCEs and went to university, the less able took CSEs (often in a vocational subject like car maintenance) and went on to work. To a certain extent, I confess, I don’t disagree with the principle: of course there’s room for a more vocational path, why should everyone by necessity have to aim to become a doctor or a lawyer? But not enough was done at the time to ensure that those who ended up down a vocational path were doing so because it was right for them, rather than, say, because they were simply a personality type that didn’t do well at exams and who, if given the right opportunity, could shine by another method. And we're not just talking about those with a high learning potential, who of course often tend to underachieve; how many girls ended up forced down the wrong path simply because of their natural predisposition to do better with coursework rather than exams? Even now in 2013 we've yet to achieve real equality in the workplace between men and women. Prevailing sexual attitudes at the time, and since, have their part to play, but how far did this natural aid to discrimination push back the cause?
GCSEs were intended to fix that. Everybody would have their chance, they would be partly exam based, partly coursework based, cue an era of inclusivity and opportunity. Except that didn’t work either. For whatever reason more children get higher marks more regularly than ever before, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s because children are getting better at passing them or the exams are getting easier. The fact is that as a measure of ability they now don’t tell employers enough to make any sort of judgement.
So, we need something different. Gove, bless his cotton socks, thinks that the answer is to introduce rigour. Hark back to the glory days, he says, when we could all recite Henry VIII’s wives in order and do complex trig on the back of a napkin when we needed to split the bill. But the glory days weren’t actually particularly glorious, and he’s fixing the wrong problem.
Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that learning by rote (a) doesn’t work and (b) isn’t necessary (any lawyer will tell you that he doesn't know the law any better than anyone else, he simply knows where to look for the answer), and equally let's ignore the fact that the current education system was designed to prepare children for a world that no longer exists. We need a system that can cope with children who may be very clever indeed but just not good at exams. Employers are already educated in this – if I interview someone the last thing I’m interested in is their GCSEs; how well do they cope with my questions? how do they interact with others? would I want to share an office with them? can they do the job? – and for most professions there's far less importance placed on academic qualifications and far more on analytical skills, interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities. Employers, who more and more need to prove their social mobility credentials, are looking at increasingly novel ways to ensure that there are no barriers to entry. A return to the good ol' days of GCEs and CSEs seems to be a move in the wrong direction.
Lest I should be accused of thinking there should be some sort of free for all, a great release of entirely untested workers into the market, that's not what I'm getting at. Of course children need to be tested to see whether they have learned the skills necessary to enable them to go forth and become productive members of society. But Mr Gove, this isn't the way to do it.