Exams and Qualifications

Apparently the Government is going to abolish GCSEs and replace them with something like O-levels.

The Guardian’s columnist is naturally appalled, complaining about the horrible crime of O-levels – that being that only the bright kids did O-levels and everyone else did Certificates of Secondary Education. Perhaps she’s never looked into the details of how GCSEs work. In academic subjects only the bright kids are entered for “Higher” GCSE papers and everyone else gets a “Foundation” paper with their grade capped at a C.

So the less academic kids are still stuck with “inferior” qualifications, but the qualification isn’t good enough to explain that this was because the system prevented them from doing any better. At least with a second-rate CSE you have a qualification which proclaims that you were only one grade from the best you could achieve with a CSE. The equivalent at GCSE is a D grade, which at my run-down ex-comprehensive school was widely regarded by the pupils as a fail.

And when every employer and college wants “four GCSEs grades A*-C”, a bunch of grade D GCSEs is indeed a fail. A D grade will inevitably be treated in direct comparison with all those lovely A grades which the media say are dished out every year (though not necessarily at my school – not that I should be so rude about it, since some other kids I know of who went to a much better school where they had religion and ties and pupils standing for teachers and other posh things – which we weren’t given in case we used them in imaginatively incorrect ways – are now stacking shelves for someone and in that regard have done no better than several of my school associates). Which makes it seem rather unfair that a lot of children are entered for exams in which they are virtually guaranteed to fail and told that this is fairer than a qualification which owns up to not being academically inclined.

Though one of my friends did go somewhere on a bunch of F and G grades, but I lost touch before I found out exactly where. He was a nice chap in the playground, by and large, but happily my school didn’t expect me to share an English class with him so that I could enjoy a valuable educational experience watching the teacher persuade him not to throw paper balls at the nincompoops opposite and instead settle down to enjoy the finer points of Shakespeare. I don’t think said finer points interested him much, to be honest. Lumping Macbeth The Scottish Play into his drama course and giving him a qualification for demonstrating his understanding by taking part in a performance of it would probably have been more valuable, interested him more and given the rest of us an opportunity to develop our understanding by going to see it. Instead we watched the Roman Polanski film, interspersed with bits of the nincompoops opposite throwing paper balls around their side of the classroom.

My A-levels didn’t fully live up to the stereotype of endless resits and modular exams every three months with pots of coursework. Well, ok, maybe they did, but let’s run through them anyway:

French – only did this to AS-level, and my support for AS-levels is that it encourages people to take four subjects for Year 12 (Lower Sixth), mull them over, widen their knowledge of them at A-level standards and then throw one away. The AS-level was assessed in the traditional standard with exams at the end of the year – several of them, since languages tend to demand three (reading/ writing, listening and speaking). The coursework was in Year 13 (Upper Sixth) and offered an opportunity to research a subject in depth and write about it in depth in French in a way which will inevitably be skimmed in an exam.

History – Resat a couple of modules in a way which made this course very similar to doing one big exam at the end. Did extremely well, even getting top marks in the paper which I sat in a slight feeling of shock because I’d thought it was in the afternoon rather than the morning. No-one, least of all the exam board, had a clue what the coursework should look like and to be honest re-reading my A-graded submission now hardly inspires me in terms of critical thinking. It was done to an incredibly formulaic structure. (A-levels were very formulaic when I sat them. You could basically tick off checkpoints as you went through your answer. Actually, I think that was a recommended revision tactic…)

Law – Traditional structure with one exam at the end of each year. This exam was divided into three papers, each with a set time for doing it. Arguably this helped our pacing, but otherwise the division into three papers was basically for administrative purposes. Did very well in first year, so got overconfident in the second and concentrated on History. However, my main lesson is that if you want to do a law degree read up on it separately and don’t do the A-level. It’s fun, but it encourages you to breeze the first year (you can’t) and by the end of the degree you’ve been doing five years of Donoghue Stevenson

Maths – Resat a module in this one and dropped a grade on the following actual paper as a result (whoops).  This one was a full-blown modular affair, which was ironic since my teacher complained endlessly about the awful modular system used for GCSE maths. The thing about maths teaching these days is that you take an idea and build on it for a year or two, so much of the course is based on differential calculus and how to make it more complex. Accordingly, if you go for one final exam the logical result is that you bundle all the 90-minute papers into one 90-minute paper (since most of them were only assessing that you understood first principles anyway) and everyone who lost track somewhere in the two years fails.

I also did a thing called the Welsh Baccalaureate, which I won’t go into too much here but could probably write a dissertation on. Actually, if education reform becomes too prominent I will probably start doing lots of these blogposts comparing the press and political ideals with the television dramas and my actual experiences at a run-down city suburban comprehensive built during the term of the late Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57). I can’t say how bad it officially is now since a quick Google search would allow you to positively identify it.

But despite its atrocious position in the league tables and apparently uninspiring A*-C record, for those of us who showed merit there were ample opportunities to progress, including extra study time for “Triple” Science at GCSE. A school stuffed with awkward pupils can be a holy grail for the bright – both with the opportunity to distinctively excel, which the other kids do actually respect, and the fact that the teachers are all keen to coach you for whatever reason.

It should be noted that I did A-levels when the two years featured six modules (I understand there are now four) and you could only get an A as the top grade – with the result that my A-levels have quite literally and indisputably suffered from grade inflation, since my once top-rank pair of A grades are now only second-class A-levels and a friend who did the exams two years later was able to notch up an extra 40 UCAS points for fewer exams. So my experience here is a trifle obsolete. This may perhaps suggest that if any reforms aren’t going to achieve something pretty obviously useful then we should let then current system go somewhere first.

However, I’m more peeved at the fact that according to the media I have been educated in such a way that I know nothing about any of the subjects that I’ve been educated in; all I can do is answer exam papers.

Now the Government is planning to abolish all those exam papers.

Consequently my skills will no longer be of any practical value.

What a waste of ten years of formal education.

And how do they expect me to get a job when all my skills have been abolished?

(Fortunately I already have one.)


(This was going to be bundled into the Seasonal Area post, but it got a bit big – partly through reminiscences at the computer about my secondary education.)


One thought on “Exams and Qualifications

  1. gawainsmum June 23, 2012 / 20:46

    So hoorah for suburban comprehensives, and journalists (including those on the BBC) should use those brilliant O level skills that they claim to have and research what GCSEs involve before they comment on them.
    I’ve got some CSEs as well as those O levels. CSEs are OK.

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