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Reforming GCSEs - a fascinating debate on Twitter
22/06/2012 21:41:00


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.

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 27/06/2012 08:45:00 Anthony Miller wrote:
What is it with some in the Labour Party that they think they know what is best for other people's children?

Who said anything about it being the best? And since when was policy based simply on people demanding things? If politicians just gave people what they demanded we'd still have public hangings.

"The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing" - Harold Wilson. Actually all parties are a moral crusade of some sort or another.

If you don't want to tell other people how to live politics is probably not the correct career choice. Even "small state" and "libertarian" Tories are engaged in telling other people how to live and what choices they should be making, however much they po-facedly deny it.

Grammar Schools are wrong - they can only exist by taking more than their fair share of the funding pot from another school.

That is the entire definition of them.

CSEs were wrong - creating a generation of Rodney Trotters who had nothing but a piece of paper stating they were too thick for proper exams. 16 year olds dont need vocational qualifications. They need qualifications. 18 year olds, that's different.

Public schools - if rich people want to opt out the state system it is impossible to stop them. If they want to pay for education twice over and not use the public service I can't see how that is a harming the state overall. Will they get a better education for their children? Yes

Is it socially divise to send your children to a public school?

Yes, that is the entire point of public schools no matter how much they try to "fit in" with the community to preserve their charitable status.

These are two separate questions really. But in the Conservative mind these two clearly separate questions become one.

The trouble with Conservatives is they are apt to believe that if something benefits them and their children it MUST by definition benefit society. However, this is not always true. You have to decide how much of a toss you actually give about other people.

Mind you in your mind going to Trinity School Governer meetings is a reasonable use of your working day as an MP.

How? I dont mind that you send your kids there but it is not the state and your job is running state schools as far as I'm concerned.

Trinity may like to imagine it is engaged in some kind of public private partnership with the state but it isn't. Not round my flat anyway.

On 03/07/2012 21:35:00 Gavin Barwell wrote:

I don't send my sons to Trinity - a) they're not old enough yet and b) as things stand I couldn't afford it.

It is not my job to run state schools. I am not a member of the Government or the Council administration. My job is to represent the people of Croydon Central and to try to improve the area. I believe that Croydon is immeasurably the better for the Whitgift Foundation but also that the Foundation could do even more so I am happy to give a bit of my time as a Governor.

On 05/07/2012 20:06:00 Paul Ogier wrote:
I find it perplexing that Michael Gove and more particularly, the Conservative Party who have always 'preached' and actively promoted the so-called virtues and of the efficiencies of free markets with at the most 'light touch regulation' if any at all, yet when it comes to educational exams now wants to regulate from the centre what has now become a free market in educational qualifications between exam boards. A trend started by Kenneth Baker and the Conservative Governments of the 80's initially via the National Curriculum, now sees schools exercising their 'freedoms in the educational market place' choosing which boards and their exams most suit their pupils in terms of pass rates and costs!! In this 'market' who is the customer -the school or the pupil?

I am very uneasy about the duality of 'academic' and 'vocational' qualifications the latter being defined by you as 'practical'. I regard doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, ministers of religion, social workers, psychologists and many other occupations as being vocations. So would you be suggesting that younger people in their school years who wish to pursue such vocations should not undertake so called more rigourous academic exams such as 'O' levels and make choices for vocational (and practical) exam routes instead? Or do you mean that vocational means potential plumbers, electricians, child care workers, shop workers etc etc - CSE's by any other name (same joint but different gravy!). All vocations demand discipline and rigour including those not often ascribed little status by society whether well or poorly remunerated or even not remunerated like parenting.

On 01/08/2012 13:29:00 Anthony Miller wrote:
"b) as things stand I couldn't afford it".

Well as a governer you should be in a position to rectify that?

Anyway, I wouldn't worry - I expect you'll be promoted soon.




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