Is the time right for a debate on the character of the examination system at 16+? If the YouGov survey in today’s Sunday Times is indicative of the public’s attitude, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Half of those surveyed thought a return to O Level was a good idea compared to 32% who supported the existing GCSE. The response to should there be one national examination board was even clearer with an overwhelming majority in favour of this step. So it appears that, despite the way in which the debate was initiated, Michael Gove has hit a raw nerve in public opinion and the public popularity for the proposal should be sufficient to catapult it forward.
Do we need an examination system with greater rigour? Well, yes as many students leave school at 16+ knowing very little and not knowing how to apply the little that they do know. The problem lies with the notion of a return to O Levels. You simply can’t turn the clock back to what many people see as a golden age. Were O Levels and CSEs that good? Having taught both I’m not convinced. Both encouraged the assimilation of knowledge but did little to develop effective thinking and passing examinations depended less on critical thinking than the ability of regurgitate factual materials. GCSEs, by contrast, attempted, but with limited success, to develop thinking and research skills with a consequent dilution and fragmentation of factual material. So what we need is an examination system that successfully combines the development of critical thinking and research and communication skills with coherent and ideally holistic factual content. In History, this means courses that meld What? Why? and How? with an understanding of historiography and analysis of sources that are tested through extended writing based on research, essays and source analysis within a framework of critical thinking weighted 30 per cent, 40 per cent and 30 per cent. Three elements: the first teacher-assessed and moderated more rigorously than at present; the second and third elements through written examinations at the end of the course. I would also be inclined to apply the same criteria to Advanced Level increasing the number of written examinations to three (two essay papers and one source paper) against at the end of the course ending the need for AS and modular structures. This would allow students at both 16+ and 18+ to take courses unhindered by the disruptive nature of modular courses (all that time spent preparing for and doing examinations and resits) and would allow teachers to teach the subject unfettered in the knowledge that the exams would be at the end. That would be really liberating and would allow the development of detailed understanding of subjects that is impossible within a modular system.
The question is whether we need to go back to two qualifications at 16+ as existed before 1987. I’m inclined not to. It was one of my most difficult tasks to decide whether students should do O Level or CSE and there was no guarantee that I’d get it right. The problem was that once a decision had been made it was difficult to move from O Level to CSE and vice versa. In addition, parents are more empowered educationally today than they were in the 1970s and 1980s when I remember having fairly ferocious discussions with parents about my decisions. Having two qualifications could well damage the often tenuous relationships between teachers and parents who now see themselves rather more as consumers than was the case in the past. Going back to parallel qualifications at 16+ could well raise more problems than it solves. The solution lies in something that has already been tried: tiered examinations. This has the advantage of leaving the final decision on which tier is entered until the last moment and the decision will be based on quantifiable evidence of performance during a course. This will not entirely negate parental objections but at least teachers will have evidence to support their decisions that can be presented to parents to justify their choices.
As for a single national examination board that the survey strongly favoured, this is now essential. It will remove the iniquitous system of deciding to do examination board A’s courses because the pass rate appears to be better and would also ensure that standards could be uniformly applied (in so-far as they can ever be uniformly applied). The existing examination boards would simply become regional deliverers of the national board’s courses responsible for administration and marking under national supervision in their particular region.