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Chris McGovern: Lifting the ban on ‘O’ Levels is the answer, not more grade recalibration


Question: When is a Grade A not a Grade A?

Answer: When it is a GCSE examination grade. The real Grade A is, now, an A* (A-star).

Question: When will a Grade A* not be the top grade?

Answer: When it becomes part of the newly proposed grading system for GCSE. Grade A* will convert to Grade 8 on a 1 to 9 scale. The new top grade will be Grade 9.

Does this sound a bit confusing?  It becomes all the more so if we include GCSE grading between 1988, the first year of the exam, and 1994, when Grade A* was introduced.

In those early years of GCSE a Grade A actually meant a Grade A. Unless, of course, you make a comparison with what came before, when we still had GCE O-Level. It is now widely acknowledged that a Grade A at O-Level is some way ahead of Grade A at GCSE.

What are employers to make of it? Is the Department for Education going to publish an examination vintage chart on the lines of those produced in the wine trade? And how will a Grade A* achieved this summer compare with the proposed Grade 9 in 2017? Presumably, the Grade 9 will be seen as superior, but if the next Isaac Newton could not achieve beyond Grade A* on this summer’s Physics GCSE should his performance be seen as inferior?

A 2009 study from King’s College London compared the results of 3000 14-year olds on a maths paper sat by the same age group in 1976. It showed a similar level of attainment although, as a result of grade inflation, far, far more pupils in 2009 had high exam grades for maths. Last summer 62.1% of 16 year-olds achieved an A* to C ‘pass’ grade in maths. This compares with a 22% pass rate at O-level in the early 1980s. Beyond GCSE, research findings from the University of Durham suggests a two-grade inflation at A-Level compared to the 1980s; a Grade B today would have been a Grade D thirty years ago.

The Government’s proposed recalibration of GCSE grades is an attempt to restore some credibility to the debased educational currency. To attract more customers exam boards have been competing to be easier – as much in how they mark papers and ‘induct’ teachers, as in the question papers they set.

What is now being proposed, Grade 1 to Grade 9, is a return to the original O-Level grading. Calibrated against international benchmarks, it should be a move in the right direction. However, one is left asking why does the Government does not simply lift the current ban on GCE O-Levels for our pupils. What sense does it make to produce an O-Level exam in this country, export it to our economic competitors such as Singapore, but ban it here?

We must hope that the revamped GCSE really does provide some academic rigour that meets the needs of academic pupils. Equally important, we need a high quality vocational qualification for those pupils who wish to choose a non-academic a pathway from the age of 14.  If we have learnt anything from the experience of GCSE it is that a ‘one size fits all’ exam does not work.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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