The change from O-levels and CSEs to GCSEs which happened in 1984 was described at the time as introducing a system that would be ‘more intelligible to users.’ One of the things which had been confusing was that the grades given for O-levels kept changing. At the time I sat O-levels in 1973 with the London board the pass grades were A, C and E! Employers could be confused as to what grades meant given the fluid nature of this grade changing, and that confusion was only added to by the proliferation of exam boards with different standards.
A key change in 1984 was a reduction from 29 boards to just 5, with a move towards standardization. This was perhaps much more significant than the change to GCSEs.
In 1973 there were 7 grades for the CSE, with grade 1 being equivalent to an O-level pass. I never understood the significance of the other 6 grades. In my mind, they were fail grades. I achieved a grade 3 in French at CSE after 5 years of ‘learning.’ I have always thought this was worthless.
The then Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph said: “The system we propose will be tougher, but clearer and fairer.” I don’t know what this means. The O-levels were tough, and I did not feel that CSE was easy, otherwise I might have got a grade 1 in French! Exam questions prior to this time were not user-friendly and this was tough. I can remember an O-level Chemistry question which asked for a description of the behaviour of acids with reference to certain materials. This meant the pupil had to decide how to structure the answer and what to put into that answer, which was really quite difficult. The GCSEs developed into a much more user-friendly exam because of the structured layout of questions. These took you through the question in coherent steps which became progressively more difficult, and also most answers were short as opposed to more essay type answers. This was a major improvement, which helped extract the best from the student. Indeed, it was also a far more significant change than the introduction of the GCSE itself, and could have been done within the old system.
Another Keith Joseph quote was, ‘it will stretch the able more and stretch the average more.’ This is nonsense. You can write a syllabus and exam paper that will stretch pupils under any system. It has nothing to do with whether it is O-level or GCSE.
The new system was fairer because ‘under the old O-Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate’s performance relatively against those of competing candidates.’ That was completely unfair on individuals as it did not mark relative to an absolute but relative to how others had done. The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill, though again, this could really have been done in any system.
Was the change totally fair, though? Not really. The new GCSEs introduced a two-tiered system, Higher and Foundation. The Foundation allowed for a top grade of C, with grades down to G, followed by unclassified. These lower grades really have no value to employers or anyone else, just like the CSE grades, but no one has ever really wanted to publicly say so. Why has the A* to C always been quoted as the Gold Standard? Because they are the only grades really worth having? Just as with the CSEs, it begs the question, why do we persistently put a large number of pupils through exams which give them nothing of real value? Shouldn’t this be recognised so that we can find better areas for them to develop in? For example, I would have been better doing Technical Drawing instead of French as I had proved that I was good at Technical Drawing and was interested to continue. Stupidly, I was told I had to do French, following the school’s agenda. We are still failing to meet the diverse needs of many pupils by following other agendas.
The changing of the names of the exam systems was really just smoke and mirrors. Making the system better could have been done quietly and effectively without introducing new names. It is simply that politicians need spin and headlines.
Andrew Bateson is 57 years old and initially trained as a Geologist. He has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years teaching Chemistry and Science to 11 to 18 year olds. Previously he worked in the Ceramic industry in research and development and then management. He has experience of both the independent and state sectors, teaching in single sex and mixed sex schools. As a Union Rep., he followed educational policy closely throughout his teaching career. He has retired from teaching to continue working with OOL and to retrain as a Psychotherapist.