GCSEs need reform, not scrapping

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It was recently announced that the government Secretary of Education Michael Gove has opted to scrap his plans to abolish the current GCSE system used in secondary schools, after facing opposition from the coalition Liberal Democrats, as well as protests from exam regulators and teachers. The original plans for reform were leaked in 2012, and the Guardian claimed that Gove planned to replace GCSEs with a system similar to O-levels. Gove’s abandonment of his brainchild is a sure sign that the coalition government is failing to make any real changes to Britain.

One of the media’s favourite claims every single year, when students’ grades improve, is that exams are getting easier. Perhaps Gove shared this sentiment, which is why he wanted to return to an archaic form of testing which allow the privileged, intelligent classes of society to move up the social scale; whilst abandoning those who perhaps need more assistance when it comes to reaching the top marks. Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, was quoted in 2012 as saying that the decision to scrap GCSEs was “ludicrous” and would be harmful in that O-levels were designed for “20% of the population” who could benefit from the O-levels. O-levels were scrapped in 1988, and were wholly exam-based, undoubtedly giving advantage to those students who performs well under exam conditions and isolating those who would benefit from showing the extent of their work over a longer period of time, like the GCSE coursework offers students.

It was even suggested that O-levels were statistically more beneficial for males, Madsen Pirie claimed that males thrived under exam conditions; thus introducing coursework as part of the high school qualification system, despite disadvantaging males to some extent, has assisted in reversing the gender gap in education – feminists all over Britain can rest assured that us girls are getting a decent education. In addition to this, critics of Gove’s reform argued that the O-level system did little to address social mobility, due to the fact that pupils judged to be more able were assigned to sit O-levels, whereas the rests sat CSEs, which employers deemed to be an inferior qualification. She claimed that “the aim should be to get as many people as possible to the best standard they can achieve… you do not do that by dividing everyone as sheep and goats at 14”, which is certainly true; but then it’s no secret that the Conservatives enjoy branding education as a luxury for the privileged few.

However, it is questionable as to whether giving up on a reform of GCSEs is the right way to go. Although I agree with the idea that returning to O-levels would be a foolish error in an increasingly divided Britain, I also believe that perhaps GCSEs aren’t exactly the best way of encouraging kids to work hard and do well. Without meaning to sound boastful, me and my friends did next to no revision in preparation for our GCSE exams (although admittedly I worked hard on the coursework and had to revise for my Maths GCSE unless I wanted to completely flunk out or squint across the space between me and the desk next to me). Either way, I remember my GCSEs as a time of playing the newly released Sims 3 and occasionally reading a page or two in a revision textbook. Whilst still acquiring very good grades and doing well, it led to me believing that I could get through exams with barely any revision – which, once you’ve moved onto higher education, you very quickly discover that you can’t.

At the same time, there were also many people at my school that had to work hard to achieve a passing grade, and it is these people that would have paid the price if Gove’s reforms had been successful. At the end of the day, although Gove being forced to abandon his plans for reform is a relief to students and teachers alike, it is also a sign of the Conservative party’s inability to reform the country the way they desire and the failings of the coalition government. Is there really any point in a government which can’t seem to agree?

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