Dave Wilkinson, the Derby branch secretary of teaching union NASUWT, voices his shock at Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to scrap GCSEs and bring back O-levels.
When first heard on Breakfast News that Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, intends to abolish GCSEs and return to O-levels and CSEs my first reaction was that I hadn’t woken up properly. My next reaction was that it was a joke – and then I realised, of course, that it wasn’t April Fools’ Day.
I won’t have been alone – many teachers and head teachers, school governors and parents have been left shell-shocked by Gove’s announcement.
This, truly, is the most graphic example yet of the current Government pursuing a policy which attempts to reverse those achievements in education which have benefited the whole of British society in the last three or four decades.
During this time, under both Conservative and Labour governments, state education pursued a broadly progressive path – the principle was established that all children deserved a high quality education, not just the most academically gifted, and schools began to be reorganised along these principles.
GCSEs were part of this progressive trend – exams which pupils took when they left school at sixteen could be taken by nearly all pupils and there was no stigma associated with not being considered bright enough to take O-levels and only being able to take CSEs. Since O-levels were abolished, we have realised there are different types of intelligence and that O-levels only rewarded one type.
Nearly all of those involved in education, therefore ,consider that O-levels belong in the days of the cane and pupils writing on slates, not a modern education system belonging to the second decade of the 21st century. It is absolutely untrue to say that GCSEs have become too easy. It is just as difficult to achieve an A* in a GCSE as it was to achieve an A Grade at O-level.
In fact, in many ways it requires more consistent hard work – O-levels were decided on the day in an end of course exam and students could cram to succeed at them and then forget all that they had learnt afterwards. Many schools in Derby have been very successful in increasing the numbers of pupils achieving five GCSE A* to Cs, including maths and English.
In addition to attacking GCSEs, Gove has attacked vocational qualifications, which are qualifications aimed at equipping pupils for the world of work. Given the need to develop a highly skilled workforce, this is extremely bizarre. Back in Michael Gove’s ‘Good Old Days’ of pupils taking O-levels, there were far more pupils taking CSEs who were regarded as failures.
What Gove wants, of course, is a two tier, elitist education system with a ‘successful’ minority facing down a ‘failing’ majority. In the old, divided state education system which ended in Derbyshire when schools became comprehensive in the 1970s, CSEs were taken by pupils in secondary modern schools and O-levels by pupils in grammar schools.
The two tier system was horribly divisive – it split families, with some siblings passing the 11+ and going to grammar school and some siblings going to secondary modern schools.
Children were branded failures at 10, when they took the 11+, and some children never recovered their self-esteem. The grammar school/secondary modern system was even demoralising for grammar school pupils, with some deciding they didn’t need to work very hard after they had passed the 11+. It’s not even true to say that the teaching was particularly good. I went to a grammar school and can honestly say the teaching is better in the Derby comprehensive schools in which I have taught over the last 26 years.
My own children have enjoyed a far better education in Derbyshire’s comprehensive schools than I ever did in a Yorkshire grammar. The strangest thing about Michael Gove’s announcement is that it is so profoundly reactionary, essentially because he wants to turn the clock back and does not believe that society progresses. An equivalent Government policy in transport would be to announce that all diesel and electric trains are to be scrapped over the next two years and replaced by steam trains.
Gove does not seem to understand that educational methods which have been abandoned were replaced by more effective methods. In addition, many practices in the past were simply cruel – children with special educational needs were made to wear dunce caps. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next Government announcement brings all of this back as well. Gove may have made an enormous political mistake with this announcement.
Up to now, his decisions have damaged teachers and pupils but have not attacked all pupils and staff in schools simultaneously. Those decisions include ending the Building Schools for the Future Programme; promoting and forcing academy conversion and, more recently, attacking the terms and conditions of teachers.
Derby has already been Gove’s victims over the last two years – now the rest of our country will follow suit. Pupils, teachers, head teachers, schools and local communities will all be victims of Gove’s return to O-levels and CSEs. Hopefully, this will help to build a large coalition across our society in opposition to Gove and we can defend high quality comprehensive education for all of our children together.
That education means a cohesive and well-ordered society, which is now being threatened by this Government’s Secretary of State for Education. I would think that his abolition of GCSEs goes too far for many Liberal Democrats and even some Conservatives – of course, GCSEs were a flagship policy of Margaret Thatcher.
It is now time for Labour politicians, together with disaffected Liberal Democrats and Tories, in partnership with teachers and the trade unions, to show their opposition to a Secretary of State for Education who is doing such harm to our children and the future of our country.