In defence of the GCSE
It looks like pupils across England will sit GCSEs for the last time in 2015, paving the way for more traditional exams modelled on the old O-levels the following year. This is undeniably a bold move – breath-taking even – which has taken politicians and educationalists completely by surprise. But is it right?
Many of the things Michael Gove wants to abolish – including the national curriculum, GCSEs and league table measures – were introduced by Conservative ministers in the 1980s in response to a perception that education had become a ‘secret garden’ run by unaccountable educational professionals. Two very big beasts of Conservative education policymaking – Keith Joseph and Ken Baker – were responsible for these reforms in 1986 and 1988 respectively. They have formed a stable bedrock of policy consensus between the political parties ever since. So Gove is overturning a lot of recent education policymaking assumptions.
Gove’s central premise – that GCSEs have led to a ‘dumbing down’ of standards – is a familiar conservative argument. It is certainly true that Professor Robert Coe of Durham University has found evidence of grade inflation in GCSEs between the years 1996 and 2006. However, the obvious solution to a concern about GCSE standards is not to abolish them but to make them more rigorous. Gove has already cut back on modular assessment and his decision to get rid of competition between exam boards will prevent them from allegedly offering schools easier exams in return for custom. Gove is also right to ensure that English exams are benchmarked against those in other countries.
Where he is wrong is to split today’s single qualification at 16 into two: an O level for ‘academically minded’ students and a ‘CSE’ for those heading down a less academic and more practical track. This would have the effect of capping aspiration because at 14 pupils would be taken down a route which meant they could only ever achieve a level 1 qualification at 16 (a D at GCSE). The CSE was originally abolished because it demotivated pupils and left them languishing in under-achieving classrooms. Gove risks creating exactly the same problem this time round – trying to stretch high-achievers while capping the ambition of thousands of pupils in the process. As Christopher Cook has shown in an excellent blog today, there will be a regional impact, with whole swathes of northern and urban England switching to it.
The creation of the GCSE helped to lift the cap on aspiration by enabling children who otherwise would have left school at 16 to stay on into further and higher education. Staying-on rates increased from 36 per cent in 1979 to 44 per cent in 1988 and further to 73 per cent by 2001. The introduction of the GCSE was directly responsible for a large part of this increase.
The most bizarre justification for abolishing GCSEs is that having a target for the number of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades has created perverse incentives for schools. At the margin, it may well be that schools have incentives to get pupils above the line of a C grade. But if you want to change these incentives, you should reform the accountability system, not abolish the qualifications (such as by introducing a NYC-style School Report Card that would measure how far schools added value for all their pupils, particularly those from lower income backgrounds).
All the evidence from around the world shows that the best education systems are those which have the best teachers. Hence another key assumption of recent education policymaking has been that teacher recruitment, training and professional development need to be strengthened, as indeed they have. Gove has already taken a big risk with that agenda by enabling Free Schools to recruit people without Qualified Teacher Status. Whispers in the teacher training world are that he wants to extend that exemption to academies. We would then have secondary schools with no national curriculum, unqualified teachers, limited accountability and two-tier qualifications. Is that the kind of education system we want?