The recent publication of official papers from the 1980s provides further context to the introduction of GCSEs. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/30/national-archives-revelations-released-documents .
The new common exam, reflected the growth of comprehensive schools, many being given the go ahead by Thatcher herself, while a dual system of CSE and GCE O-level examinations, the former still acting primarily as a ‘leaving’ certificate for ‘non-academic’ young people was also becoming increasingly inappropriate, as staying on rates continued to increase. In addition many schools were able to ensure that their students were being awarded CSE grade 1 (O-level equivalent). Despite this however, the papers report Prime Minister Thatcher’s concern that GCSE would result in too high levels of exam success, reflecting the extent to which New Right thinking was already starting to sweep through the education system.
GCSE, possibly because it was so new, was able to survive the Education Reform Act, although tiering was quickly introduced. It wasn’t until over 25 years later that Michael Gove launched a full-frontal attack on the qualification, unsuccessfully seeking to replace it with new E-bacc certificates, but then abolishing most of its progressive features and in so doing so, making it look more like the old O-level, as well as being harder to pass.
Meanwhile last week, CBI director general John Cridland called for peak level assessment to be delayed till 18 and rather than GCSE, for more individually tailored learning from 14 and for young people to mix and match academic and vocational learning ‘depending on what’s right for them’ http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/new-year-message-for-2015/
It does seem ridiculous that with the raising of the participation age to 18, GCSE continues to dominate the secondary curriculum. Practitioners and teacher unions must not let organisations like the CBI set the tone of this debate however