Dont bet on it-GCSEs still not fit for purpose

And still referencing Singapore’s O level


Michael Gove, the Education Secretary ,introducing Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of Washington DC schools,  to an audience at Policy Exchange, this week, very pointedly praised Rhee’s moral courage and sustained  leadership in pushing through education reforms  in DC against very  stiff  opposition,  from  vested interests.  In short, these ‘interests’ were  adults who were putting their  perceived interests before those of the children in their care. She prevailed, as it happens, although it wasn’t  easy. She then  set an example   for others to follow and remains a pivotal figure in the education reform movement in the States.

He clearly sees himself in a similar battle here. The Education system is run by adults for adults (producer interests).  And for those who claim there is too much change and its time for consolidation and reflection, he has this  simple message “For those who say it would take years for any such culture change to occur here – I say – we can’t wait. Our children only have one chance at education and we need to ensure they can succeed now”.

In a Commons debate last week  in which he was attacked over leaked plans to  replace GCSEs  with  a more robust qualification, Gove had argued that we already have, in effect, a two tiered qualifications system, given that 40% of pupils currently fail to get five good GCSEs and some of the best schools are now opting for the IGCSE , which is very similar to the O level.

At a Spectator conference ,on the same, day he repeated this clear uncompromising message.   He reminded the audience at the conference that  previous reforms,  which are now well embedded , were  strongly resisted  at the time “ When the last Government opted for a welcome reform of these league tables – and insisted that English and Maths be included in the five GCSE passes by which schools would be measured – there was a predictable outcry from the usual suspects: this was going back to the 1950s, this was squeezing creativity out of the curriculum, this was denigrating alternative ways of learning, this was creating a new hierarchy of subjects, this was recreating an old hierarchy of subjects, this was unfair on students whose backgrounds did not conform to bourgeois expectations and so on… But while adults complained, at least more children were taught to acquire qualifications which mattered. It was a step forward – but it was still progress made on fundamentally unsound foundations.”

He continued “Because GCSEs themselves – including those in English, Maths and Science – had been losing their value over time. Authoritative voices had given warning. Sir Michael Barber feared GCSEs were becoming less rigorous. Durham University showed that GCSEs had become less demanding by a whole grade between 1996 and 2006.. The independent exams regulator Ofqual confirmed that questions in maths and science papers had become less demanding over the years” and so on. a culture of low expectations was further reinforced by the creation of two different kinds of GCSE – one which explicitly placed a cap on aspiration. Important GCSEs like English, Maths and the Sciences were split into two tiers, Foundation and Higher.”

He added “The Foundation paper was designed to limit students’ success. It is impossible for students entered for Foundation tier papers to achieve higher than a grade C. The exam system encouraged rote learning of isolated gobbets of information and schooling in narrow exam techniques rather than deep understanding. Ministers allowed modules and resits to proliferate, conniving at this reduction in demand. The exam boards made even more money. And our children were even less stretched, challenged or excited.”

In a key passage he said “ That is why we have to reform our whole discredited curriculum and examination system. It has worked against excellence and ambition, just when we need more excellence and greater ambition.


“We need to have a system where exam boards compete to show their tests are the most ambitious, not the easiest. We need to replace rote learning and lessons in exam technique with deep knowledge and questions which test understanding. We need to have English tests which require fluent composition, a proper knowledge of syntax and grammar and familiarity with literature beyond the twentieth century. We need to have maths tests which provide students and employers with a guarantee of basic numeracy and the knowledge to progress down both technical and academic routes. We need science tests which require students to understand the forces, laws and reactions which govern our world and to use the scientific reasoning which tests hypotheses and establishes the strength of theories”


“I want us to ensure that in the next ten years at least 80% of our young people are on course to securing good passes in properly testing exams in Maths, English and Science – more rigorous than those our children sit now. This goal, while explicitly ambitious, is also entirely achievable. In Singapore the exams designed for 16-year-olds embody all those virtues and are taken successfully by 80% – and rising – of the population. Those exams – O-levels, as it happens, drawn up by examiners in this country – set a level of aspiration for every child which helps ensure Singapore remains a world leader in education. But there is nothing intrinsic to Singapore schools – or Singapore children – which means that we cannot do the same here.” The schools there are not better funded. The class sizes are not smaller. The children are not innately more intelligent. The culture, however, is orientated towards excellence, demanding of every child, and democratic in its determination that every child should be expected to succeed. For those who say it can’t happen here – I would ask why our children are worth less of our care and less worthy of our ambitions than children in Singapore? And for those who say it would take years for any such culture change to occur here – I say – we can’t wait. Our children only have one chance at education and we need to ensure they can succeed now.”

Does that really  sound like a U turn on his stance of  getting rid of GCSEs in favour of a more robust qualification?  In very deliberately referencing Singapore, yet again, he is surely signalling anything but a U turn.


Note 1

In a debate on Secondary Education in the Commons on 21 June, responding to Kevin Brennan, who was accusing him of creating a two tier system,  the Education Secretary  said “ The sad truth is that we already have a two-tier system in education in this country. Some of our most impressive schools have already left the GCSE behind and opted for the IGCSE or other more rigorous examinations. It is also the case, sadly, that 40% of children do not achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in our system. He said that, under the proposals that are being reported, 25% of children would be left behind. The sad truth is that at least 40% of children have been left behind under the current system.”

Note 2

In Prime Minister Questions on 27 June,  David Cameron was  asked if  he  wanted to bring “back O-levels and CSE-style exams”, he said the UK had to have “in our country an absolute gold standard of exams that are about rigour and high standards”.Mr Cameron continued: “The tragedy is that we inherited from the previous Government a system that was being progressively dumbed down, where Britain was falling down the league tables and GCSE questions included things such as, ‘How do you see the moon—is it through a telescope or a microscope?’“Government Members think we need a rigorous system, and that is what we are going to put in place”.


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