The abolition of the GCSE and the return of O Levels

Robert Henderson

The Coalition’s Education Secretary Michael Gove has signalled his  intention to return the English examination system to something approximating to the O Level examination Gove proposes :

That GCSEs will ‘disappear’ from schools within the next few years

The National Curriculum in secondary schools will be abolished

The requirement that pupils obtain five good GCSEs graded A* to C will be scrapped

Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs

O-level pupils will sit the same gold standard paper nationwide from a single exam board


It is also implicit in the idea of returning to O Levels that coursework will be ended , the  exam grade will be determined solely on the basis of an end-of-course  (synoptic) exam  and a return to norm referencing rather than criterion referencing in the grading.  Criterion referencing allows any number of those taking an exam to achieve a particular grade. That opens the door to grade inflation.

Norm referencing means that within very narrow limits, one or two percentage points, the same percentage of those sitting the exam each year receive the same grades, for example there is a target  8% of those taking the exam to achieve an A. It might be raised to 9% in a strong year or reduced to 7% in a weak year.  This marking system would kill grade inflation at a stroke. It would also eliminate  variations in the difficulty of individual questions and of whole papers because it would not matter whether a particular year’s exam was harder or easier than the year before because the same proportion, more or less, of those taking the exam would achieve a particular grade each year. That would give a stable hierarchy of ability over time, something which would be of great assistance to employers and academics in higher education because they would know that a  particular grade indicated a consistent level of ability.

Gove’s proposals have  produced predictable squeals of outrage from the politically correct educational establishment and their political allies with much talk of “two tier systems” and “returning to the educational dark ages”, the latter  accompanied by a piece of moron’s logic that  if something has been discarded in the past it must by definition be  inferior to anything which replaces it.

O Levels were scrapped for English state schools in 1987 because they were supposedly both too narrow and relied overly on memory and the regurgitation of facts  and socially divisive because only a minority of pupils  could pass them  with the rest either left with no qualifications or those of  the easier Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) , which was also ended when GCSEs were introduced.   More on these points later.

The CSE  carried the possibility of being considered equivalent to an O Level, viz:

“There were five pass grades in its grading system ranging from grades 1 to 5, with grades 2 to 3 being recognised with equivalence to the three (later two: D and E) lowest O-Level pass grades (of which there were originally six, later five, A, B, C, D and E).

Achieving CSE grade 1 was equivalent to achieving an O level in the subject where the student may have reasonably gained an A, B or C grade had they taken an O-level course of study in the same subject.”  (

The GCSE was  built upon dishonesty from the start . It purports to be a single exam when it is several exams of differing difficulty  under the same head, viz:

” Tiers

In many subjects, there are two different ‘tiers’ of examination offered:

Higher, where students can achieve grades A*–E, or a U

Foundation, where they can achieve grades C–G, or a U[3]

If a candidate fails to obtain a Grade G on the Foundation tier or a Grade D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U. Candidates who narrowly miss a Grade D on the Higher tier, however, are awarded a Grade E. In modular subjects, students may mix and match tiers between units. In non-tiered subjects, such as History, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework and controlled assessment also always allows candidates to achieve any grade.

In 2006, GCSE Mathematics changed from a 3-tier system — Foundation grades (D–G), Intermediate (grades B–E) and Higher (grades A*–C) — to the standard 2-tier system described above.” ( and

The original GCSE was in reality the O Level and the CSE pushed under one heading with the Higher Tier equating to  the  O Level and the Foundation Tier to the CSE.  The main departure from the O Level/CSE regime was coursework  counting to the final grade .  An especially  pernicious aspect of  the sham of pretending  GCSE is one exam is that those taking tiers of different difficulty can obtain the same grade in ostensibly the same exams.  This means  GCSEs are next to useless as guides  for employers or  academics in higher education, because the person deciding to employ  or accept someone on a course could be faced with two applicants with the same grade who have achieved it by doing different  coursework and answering different exam, questions.

The GCSE waters have been muddied considerably since its inception. To the initial division  arising from the different  tiers has since been added  the Business & Technology Education Council Diploma known as BTech  ( which is vocational and rated at the equivalent of 4 GCSEs grades A-C and the  Entry Level Certificate which is rated  below the GCSE and offers a range of vocational and academic subjects ( ).   This means that at present we have at least  four different school qualifications masquerading as one.  To grasp fully the  absurd complexity of the present system of  sub-university qualifications now available in England see (

That England has arrived at a situation where multiple qualifications masquerade as one qualification is unsurprising.  It  is impossible to devise an exam which the entirety or even the vast majority of schoolchildren can pass because of the great differences in intellectual ability and inclination to study.  Ironically,  even the GCSE  taken at its own face value, that is as a single unified exam, does not fulfil this function. Despite  the fudging  of  the exam by providing different levels of difficulty and content, widespread plagiarism in the course work, modules which can  be re-sat over and over again, cheating by teachers and  remorseless grade inflation by examining boards competing for business, less than 60% of English schoolchildren in 2010/11 got 5 GCSEs at grades A-C  or their equivalent (

The reality of GCSE is that it is as educationally (and socially) divisive as the old O Level/CSE regime with the added disadvantage that not only are children still divided by attainment, the value of  the exam compared with the O Level is widely perceived – particularly amongst employers – as being much less.  If you passed O levels with decent grades it was generally taken as an assurance of quality.  GCSEs, with their ever soaring grades including a new starred A grade because so many As were being given, tales of teachers manipulating (to put it politely) the work of their pupils to ensure reasonable grades, regular reports of [plagiarism by the pupils  and employers complaining about school-leavers who are barely literate are seen increasingly as academically  dubious . The social divide is still massive. Children from fee-paying and selective state schools substantially  out perform those in comprehensives and those from poor homes do startlingly badly compared with those from well-to-do families (  The division between the fee-paying and state schools is being further widened because many fee-paying schools  have already moved from the GCSE to the International GCSE (IGCSE) because the IGSC has many features of the O Level (

The reality of our present system is that it merely pretends that children generally  can undertake and benefit from  the same  education.  Along with that sham come the ills of  plagiarism, grade inflation and  a failure to produce adults who are reasonably literate and numerate and possessed of a decent store of facts across a wide range of subjects. ( Perhaps worst of all  the current system often inflates a child’s assessment of their own capacity. If someone gains , say, eight  As at GCSE, they will bewildered if they find their ostensible GCSE successes are a poor preparation for A Levels .

A return to O Level would not produce a perfect school world. Divisions based on innate intellectual and socially acquired  differences would  continue to exist and people would  be formally categorised as academic sheep and goats.  But does anyone honestly believe that children taking GCSE do not understand that they are being divided into sheep and goats through the various tiers in the examination or the  BTECH and the Entry Level certificate?

What a return to O Levels would  do is restore confidence in the school exam taken at 16, provide a reliable standard  by which to judge a person’s general ability and   a raise standards by ending plagiarism and the collusion between  teachers and pupils  to either cheat outright or stretch the rules to the point where most people would call it cheating even if the rules are not technically breached, for example, by a teacher  virtually re-writing a poor piece of coursework by giving extensive suggestions to the pupil.

If O Levels are reinstated they would have the beneficial knock-on effect of improving academic work beyond 16.  Universities are complaining about students arriving unfit to undertake degree courses because A Levels do not prepare them for the demands of a university ( is a consequence of A Levels  having their  demands rduced because pupils who have taken GCSE start their A Level courses ill equipped for that qualification’s demands.  If O Levels are truly reinstated that will allow A Levels to become more rigorous and this in turn will send students to university better equipped for degree courses.

But  practical measures such as  end-of-course exams and the abolition of coursework would not be sufficient in itself to revive  English school examinations. It is  also the hostility to facts which makes the GCSE a flawed educational tool.  The new O Level should return facts to their necessary place which is the foundation of  understanding .  The complaint that O Levels  relied too much on the memorising of facts is mistaken for two reasons. First, the regurgitation of facts in Gradgrind fashion would not have got an O Level candidate very far, especially in the humanities, which routinely asked those sitting the exam not only to provide facts but also to analyse and interpret. Second, the acquisition of knowledge is of itself essential to a deep understanding to any academic subject. Anyone who has ever acquired a deep knowledge of anything (not just academic subjects) will have had the experience of,  without consciously trying, making connections and gaining insights which were utterly beyond them even when their knowledge had reached significant level. It is what I call the intelligence of erudition – see (   The value of a detailed knowledge of a subject also sabotages the objection that O Levels were too narrow. Knowing a little about many subjects is never going to be as valuable as knowing  much about a few subjects.

A word of warning .  If it is  intended to return to the O Levels as they were originally constructed, all well and good.  However, I doubt whether this is what is intended . I took my O Levels in the early 1960s when they were still pristine. Sciences were tested individually and each had separate practical exams. Essays were required for most questions in the humanities, extended written answers in the sciences  and multiple choice questions was unknown. There was no course work or modular exams and  the entire subject was tested at the end of the course. By 1970 the practical science exams had gone and multiple choice had begun to infect some subjects.  When they were scrapped in the 1980s they were a shadow of their original selves with large amounts of multiple choice questions.   If Gove merely wishes to return to 1987 that would be better than nothing but far from the best which could be done.

Gove’s proposals are generally sensible, not least the setting up a single examination board to prevent examination boards competing for customers by lowering standards.  Such an  examination board should be a not-for-profit organisation to remove the profit motive entirely from the process of setting and marking exams. What does concern me is the idea that the new O Level would be suitable for 75% of children – this is the clear implication of the intention that 25% of schoolchildren will  take the new CSE. It is simply impossible to produce an exam which caters for three quarters of children for the same reasons that an exam cannot cater for all children, namely, the differences in innate intellect and social circumstances are simply too great to permit it.  Even in its last decade O Level was meant for at most the top third of pupils ( (  The danger is that the  new O Level, if it is to truly be a single exam without the fudging found in the GCSE, will have to be made simple enough for the less able pupils in the top 75% to successfully sit the exams.  That would produce an exam which  was less rigorous than the GCSE Higher Tier examination.

Whatever exact form they  will take, Gove’s new exams are unlikely to become reality while the Coalition exists. Nick Clegg has said it will not take place while the LibDems are in the Coalition. This means that they are unlikely to see the light of day for several years and only then if the Tories return with a working majority at the next election, something which does not look likely at present. Gove’s ideas are best seen as aspirations rather than practical politics.

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1 Response to The abolition of the GCSE and the return of O Levels

  1. Pingback: Here We Go Again! The O level myth. |

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