The latest changes to GCSE by Michael Gove make the original examination even more unrecognisable. It is somewhat ironic that GCSE was introduced by a Tory government headed by Margaret Thatcher and an Education Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, considered, like Gove, to be on the right of the party. GCSE was also left largely untouched by the Education Reform Act, the centrepiece of Tory education policy and which changed the landscape of state education. Why was an examination considered to be the most progressive and the most egalitarian introduced at the same time as a raft of reactionary policies were being unfolded?
Of course, in those days, despite the election of the Tories, educational professionals still had significant influence over the curriculum and significant input into examination boards. Yet other developments were also taking place. Firstly, GCSE was introduced in response to increased staying-on rates in schools, a result of the decline of employment opportunities for working class young people and the disastrous and unpopular youth training schemes being no more than ‘training without jobs’. The old O-level, CSE divide was considered an inappropriate form of transition to post-16 education. The two tier exam system was also geared to a manual / non-manual labour market divide rather than the expanding service economy in which more jobs were becoming ‘white collar’. GCSE Mark 1 had a much simpler and more egalitarian grading system; a straight A-G compared to the old 1-9 scale in the O-level and incorporated as many features of the old CSE, as it did the O-level, notably its coursework emphasis.
Fast forward twenty –five years and the school system is faced with a different set of pressures. Increased staying on rates has led to huge increases in exam performance; but not to increased opportunities for employment. Michael Gove’s arguments about poor education standards being responsible for the failure to compete economically are a fallacy. Quite the contrary, with a generation of young people being ‘over qualified and underemployed.’
The claim from School’s Minister Truss that increasing the amount of grades for GCSE is the result of pressure from employers is complete nonsense. Barely anybody now moves from school to a job at 16 anyway and less than one employer in eight actively tries to recruit school leavers and when they do, these are not 16 year olds.
Gove and the Tories undoubtedly want to return to the policies of the Tory New Right of the 1980s and of the ‘Black Paperites’ who preceded them. This however, is only a partial explanation. Their main problem is that state education has been too successful. As a result the egalitarian thinking behind the GCSE has to be reversed; part of a wider ‘great reversal’ where education becomes more about lowering aspirations, sharpening the differences between success and failure and creating new divisions between learners.
For young people, the majority now staying in education well beyond sixteen and with GCSE, unlike the 0-level, no longer an ‘end’ qualification; the last thing they need is more grading. We should campaign for a general diploma for everybody which provides a range of different opportunities, but also a minimum general education for all until 18 and where assessment at sixteen can serve as a useful progress check in a longer period of learning.