Yesterday morning, the Daily Mail reported that Michael Gove was planning to scrap GCSEs and return to an O Level-style exam. Mr Gove was asked about his plans later that morning in the Commons. You can read exactly what he said here but in essence he indicated that, despite the changes he has already made (tackling the re-sit culture, ending modules and restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar) he believes that more needs to be done. One of the things he rightly mentioned is the current situation where there are multiple exam boards and some schools, particular those without their own sixth forms who aren't so concerned about whether pupils will be able to cope with A Levels, are incentivised by league tables to pick the board with the easiest exams leading to a race to the bottom.
This is a very sensitive subject. It is pretty dispiriting for young people to hear politicians saying the grades they worked so hard to achieve aren't worth as much as they used to be. In the long term, however, it does no-one any good to pretend that our exam system is as rigourous as it used to be. I was in the first year to take GCSEs - my class did one O Level in January 1988 and eight or nine GCSEs in June 1988. Just three of the class got a grade A in the O Level; most - in some subjects, nearly all - got As at GCSE. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that GCSEs when they were introduced were easier than O Levels and the evidence suggests that they have got easier since (though I don't doubt that some of the improvement in grades is due to better teaching and perhaps students working harder and/or being brighter).
So Mr Gove is right to want to change things - we live in a globalised world and if we want companies to locate here so that our young people have jobs when they leave school or university we have to have the best equipped young people in the world. We should settle for nothing less.
What we must not do is go back to the 1970s. It is right to have a rigorous academic qualification akin to O Levels but we do not want to bring back CSEs. What we need is rigourous vocational alternatives. Some young people are better suited to practical than academic work and while we need to ensure that everyone leaves school having achieved a minimum level in core subjects like maths and English, we should not expect everyone to do 9 O Levels or whatever their modern equivalent will be called and we must not regard those who do vocational qualifications as in any way failures or second class.
Some of the critics of Mr Gove's ideas worry about this. They say they are against a two-tier system. But let's be honest - that's what we have at the moment. Teachers and students choose which papers they sit for their GCSEs, with those who choose the easier papers unable to get the higher grades - and the top schools are switching to the more rigorous iGCSE.
I took to Twitter to defend what Mr Gove is proposing last night and had a fascinating discussion with a number of Croydon Labour supporters, which was revealing of their wider views on educational issues so I thought I would reproduce some of their tweets here.
First, some encouraging signs.
My predecessor Andrew Pelling dropped a hint that his conversion to the Labour cause was indeed opportunistic as we have argued all along, not due to a fundamental change in his beliefs, when he suggested that he might support the Conservative Council's ambition to have a grammar school in Croydon saying he would "like to know more about the proposal" and whether it is "a real prospect".
It was good to see the editor of the Inside Croydon website, Steven Downes, accepting that there has been grade inflation at A Level too and supporting the idea of moving to a single exam board.
And Christian Wilcox, who is passionate about improving opportunities for young people from less well-off backgrounds, had the courage to fully support what Michael Gove is saying, pointing out, "A C grade pass in GCSE science was 18% in 2010 - I have to agree with Gove".
But there were also some pretty depressing tweets.
Addiscombe councillor Sean Fitzsimmons asked why we need a grammar school in Croydon. I replied that lots of Croydon parents send their kids to Sutton grammars so there is clearly parental demand. He replied, "Lots of parents send their children to private schools, doesn't make it right". So he believes it is morally wrong for people to send their kids to a grammar or private school. What is it with some in the Labour Party that they think they know what is best for other people's children?
Despite accepting that there has been grade inflation, Steven Downes attacked Michael Gove for wanting to move away from GCSEs. Pretty hypocritical when he sends one of his children to an independent school that is moving to the more rigorous iGCSEs - what's right for his kids isn't right for the rest of us apparently.
And finally, flat-earther Jon Ellacott, who opposes academies despite all the evidence showing that in most cases they raise standards (better results, better OFSTED inspections, more parents applying for places and most importantly pupils saying their schools have improved) claimed that Oasis Shirley Park, Harris Purley and Quest are not an improvement on Ashburton, Haling Manor and Selsdon High and accused all academies in Croydon and beyond of falsifying their results.
Seems there's a way to go before some people put what's best for our young people before their ideology.