Well, it’s been an interesting few days. I offer no apology for my
knee-jerk reaction
to the news that our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was proposing a return to two distinct tiers (caution, DailyMail link) at age 16. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track the story, as much as a fulltime teacher with no political or journalism contacts can do. This is my more constructive response to his ideas, as far as we can understand them.

The ‘plans’

  • students will start new courses from autumn 2014
  • two tiers, to be modelled after but *not* called O-levels and CSEs
  • between 2/3 and 3/4 of students will do the higher level exams, presumably terminal, including English, Maths and Science
  • ‘less intelligent’ students will sit simpler ones, with no threshold of 5 GCSEs A*-C
  • no National Curriculum
  • a single exam board per subject

Context of the leak

Nick Clegg was totally unaware of the ideas and has declared that he will stop them coming into force. Of course, we know how effective the LibDems were with the NHS Bill. It seems unclear whether David Cameron was briefed – if so, it raises interesting questions about the cosy relationship between the Prime Minister and his coalition deputy. In many ways, it seems as if this has all grown out of Gove’s department – the chair of the Education Select Committee also seemed to be in the dark about the proposals. And that Gove has apparently failed to ask education professionals is hardly a surprise, considering the revelations from the Expert Panel.

According to Google, a leak is ‘an intentional disclosure of secret information’. The question here is who would have leaked material about something which is paradoxically so defined, and yet so vague. A civil servant in the DfE, perhaps? Or, as Andrew Neil suggested in the political programme ‘This Week‘, Michael Gove himself may have explained it to the editor tof the Mail himself. It makes me wonder if his intention was to test the waters ‘unofficially’, or if he hoped to force Cameron to support him against political opponents. If either of these is true, it has certainly been unsuccessful on the face of it. But then, I’m sure I miss the political nuances. Let’s get back to the practicalities.

The Reality

These are not all ridiculous ideas. It’s important that educators accept and recognise good ideas from politicians, even if they are uninformed, because otherwise our criticisms of the rest are less credible. So let’s deal with each aspect separately, starting with those I (personally) would consider less problematic.


We are already in the process of moving to a terminal exam in most subjects. How coursework and controlled assessments – like the absolutely horrendous, badly designed ISAs in Science – will work is not yet clear. In fact, like many teachers I’d really like to know how the exams will work for students starting courses in less than three months.

  • Will the content be ‘substantively’ the same, or really the same?
  • When will the terminal exams be?
  • Will students be able to resit the terminal exam for Science A (year 10ish) at the end of their year 11?

So a terminal exam is not necessarily bad, as long as politicians and the media understand this will inevitably lead to students getting lower grades. I’m currently looking for research comparing recall and understanding of students who sat module and terminal exams, afterwards. It seems likely that, like the O-levels Gove seems to remember with such fondness, this will mean relying more on memory than understanding. Some of the pressure is probably linked to universities’ claims that students lack depth of knowledge having done modular A-levels, even though degree courses are now almost entirely modular. Thanks to @prid09, who tracked down this paper from the IOP which suggests a link between skills decrease and the introduction of modules. (Of course, evidence that multiple choice tests may favour male candidates shows that any assessment method has difficulties.)I’m still reading through this huge paper from Cambridge Assessment, kindly found for me by @begration/@LearningSpy.

From a selfish point of view, I like the idea of having more teaching time, and less disruptions due to exams and resits. How this will affect student morale is yet to be seen. And I’m very curious about coursework/ISAs etc, which by definition are not terminal. I really hope that if we do move this way, we get much more in the way of sample papers. A single example is nowhere near enough, as we’ve found out each time. I still like my idea of a crowdsourced exam board. But we’ll see.

Goodbye National Curriculum and ‘GCSEs’

This is a complete red herring, as many have pointed out already – in particular I’d again recommend Chris Cook’s analysis in the FT. If there is to be only one exam specification per subject (discussed below) then this effectively sets the national curriculum, arguably more clearly than at present. It would be interesting to see what effect this has on subjects at KS3, and on non-examined subjects between 14 and 16 such as PSHE and PE. As far as I know, there’s no information about this so far – perhaps Gove hasn’t considered it?

The change of name is also a red herring. What he’s suggesting are not the same as the O-levels of the past. He’s just invoking their mystique without examining the very different aims and outcomes of those exams a generation ago.

Single Exam Boards

According to the Daily Mail article, existing boards will be invited to bid for the right to set the higher level exams. This would mean once a contract had been won, other boards would have little use for their subject-specific expert staff (as pointed out in the TES). Presumably exam boards would submit possible papers to Ofqual or directly to the DfE for consideration. There are definite strengths to a single board for a subject, reducing worries about a ‘race to the bottom’. But this is not an approach without concerns.

Textbooks would be written even more closely matched to the specification, perhaps especially for contracts gained by EdExcel/Pearson [corrected, thanks to Mary and DrDav for the proofread!] . There would need to be clear safeguards about firewalls between writers of books and papers. The current model does allow for innovation in assessment, as demonstrated by the OCR 21st century scheme. Would the board be able to offer variant courses or routes, like today’s AQA Core Science A and B courses? Would there be ‘similar’ courses, perhaps ‘Pure Maths’ and ‘Functional Maths’? Or would the more accessible papers be left to the weaker students?

Alpha or Epsilon?

This brings us to my biggest objection to the details of these proposals, rather than how they have come about. If the Daily Mail is to be believed – usually a risky proposition, but Gove has confirmed the details of the ‘leak’ to Parliament – then between a quarter and a third of students will sit a more basic exam.

This means labelling students at 14 as unable to compete. Even if we could be perfectly accurate – which of course we can’t – this has huge consequences.

  • students will lose motivation as they know they cannot improve beyond a D (as they can at present, even on Foundation)
  • those who struggle in exam situations (anxiety, perhaps, or a specific learning difficulty) will struggle when they cannot rely on coursework to help them
  • employers, without even looking at the grades achieved on these CSE equivalents, will write them off
  • parents will blame teachers for pre-judging their children at an early age.

If we assume that teachers can be 95% correct at age 14 about a student’s likely grade outcome – which is wildly optimistic – my setting would put more than ten each year into the wrong programme. Nationally, if 800000 students are in the year group (estimate from WolframAlpha) then that’s 40000 kids who get messed around. The issue is unlikely to be with the weakest students, but as usual those at the C/D borderline.

I would have a lot more interest in the idea if I believed that a quarter of Britain’s privately-educated children would be entered for these lower-level exams.

Gove seems to have made a huge conceptual error here, in harking back to the golden age of the O-level. The higher level exam was never intended for a large chunk of the population. It was for the elite, and it was designed for a world in which only a small proportion would need higher level skills. The rest were being educated for manual work, factory and field labour, in a world without greater prospects. Do we really think that a quarter of our kids should be limited by the exams they are selected for at age 14 to these kinds of jobs? Do we really believe – does Gove really believe – that this is the world in which we live?

Frankly, the thought of being asked to select which quarter of my year 9 students won’t have a chance to do A levels or go to university scares the hell out of me. Of a class of 30, I could confidently choose 3 or 4. But 8? Too many things change between 14 and 16, too many kids suddenly start working, or get over problems, or grasp the maths they need to get that C grade. It’s not about the future medics or lawyers. It’s about the ordinary, unexceptional – the ones Gove seems not to know or care about.


Don’t worry, the rant is nearly over. This final criticism is about the way in which these plans were drawn up, rather than their advantages or disadvantages. Gove appears to think that because he has been to school he knows enough to run all British schools. He listens to heads of private schools, and to journalists and politicians. He talks about a ‘gold-standard’ and makes deliberately bad comparisons between O-level questions and those at foundation tier GCSE. He ignores the experts, the educators, the teachers who will somehow have to implement his ideas. He fails to look at data which would inform a sensible choice, or allow time to collect more results so that we can make our education system work better. He overrules governors who object to his view about what is best for children, but claims he wants decisions to be local. He claims to want teachers to be involved, then criticises them at every turn.

If we want to make schools better, to make education work better for our students – rich and poor, smart and weak, north or south – then we need to look at facts. That means research, properly collected and carefully analysed. It means accepting that not all interventions will work. It means following the evidence, not the ideology. It means thinking hard about what we want our education system to achieve, what kind of 16 or 17 or 18 year old we want to produce. It means ignoring wishful thinking and rose-tinted memories, personal prejudices and media rabble-rousing.

Because in the end, our kids – mine and yours, our students and our offspring – deserve better than this.

Edit: I recommend checking out a contrasting viewpoint at @lauramcinerney’s blog.

21 thoughts on “#govelevels”

  1. Excellent post – a great contribution to the debate.

    As a fellow science teacher, I find myself agreeing with the majority of your thoughts and am drawn back to a previous post on “open source” curricula / exam boards – and a wider debate about “education” in general.

    I fear that the whole discussion about “assessments” that Gove unwillingly precipitated could be yet another diversion from a real debate about the purpose and direction of education in the UK.

    The last major overhaul in the education system was in the 1980’s when Mrs T et al conceived the National Curriculum and GCSEs. At that point some subject where made mandatory and others “options” – our subject was “in” and others, notably “ICT” where out.

    Forget how we assess learners, we should be debating what and why we teach them. Surly in todays connected world, subjects such as ICT should be mandatory — for as much as I love teaching alkenes and alkanes, I would expect that searching on google and formatting e-mail would be more beneficial to the vast majority of my students.

    I’ve called for this before on my blog: http:\\www.glengilchrist.co.uk – but it’s about time education was removed from politicians in the same way that the Bank of England was — leave it to the professionals.


  2. It’s Edexcel, rather than Excel.

    My worry is that this leak is a stalking horse, thrown out to get us worried and that the real plan will look almost sensible in comparison.

  3. Another thoughtful post, thank you.
    An advantage of terminal assessment is that there can be a variety of assessment tools used. Multiple choice allows good coverage, but tests a limited range of skills. There is the possibility of prerelease material, allowing the. Opportunity for more interpretive questions. And there is definitely a place for the 6 markers we nw have. There can be more differentiation between Foundation and higher.
    (Btw, I think you mean Edexcel not Excel and Pearson)

  4. A great and well-balanced post – so much of the furore about the leak has missed out on the idea that some of the ideas in the mix are pretty reasonable, but they are lost in the overall palaver.

    I think one of my biggest worries is that (from my understanding?) does not have to go to a wider parliamentary discussion and/or vote to be implemented – if Gove is not going to listen to experts or others, is it just going to be steamrollered through?

  5. These are the things that inspired the Geek Manifest to MPs campaign. Sadly I doubt Gove will read that book or this blog. Your last 3 paragraphs are exactly right.

  6. Brilliant post, Ian.

    My thoughts follow your own.

    I will also add that I feel sorry for that first cohort. Those that have been prepped through KS3 to focus on skills and will be faced with a content heavy “O level”. Those that have been in limbo in Yr9 whilst we try and backwards engineer the KS3 curriculum before the KS4 changes come in to force.


  7. I am currently working with igcse – this has the advantage of being terminal, questions seem to be on more solid physics than the gcse. I think that my igcse class are probably better and more interested physicists because of this course and the freedom it offers us. There is no isa, practical work is examined on the theory paper. Our sets are separate sciences igcse, dual award igcse, modular dual award gcse. We might abandon the gcse next year, even for our bottom set.

    Context is important; we have a good intake so I am talking about experience at the top end.

    Regarding the second tier, I don’t see why these have to be somehow second class. They could just be something different and valuable in their own right, perhaps focused on training for various trades. The only benefit to having a different course rather than existing tiers seems that it can be significantly different in its content and rationale.

    I think that making a choice of course for a pupil at 14 isn’t always so bad. We make such a choice at that age and, with the existing courses, it is possible for a pupil to develop or improve and change course quite easily but this has yet to happen in my five years with this system. If you have data going back a few years, compare your gcse rank order in August to the same pupils internal exam results rank order from when they were younger. It is certainly an interesting comparison to make.

    As for private schools, they are not obliged to take either and I’m sure many will continue with igcse. This was the same with Labour’s Diploma course. Speaking of which, I wonder if this new second tier course will try to salvage some of the wreckage of the Diploma? There must have been lots of money spent on developing it..

    I think IGSCE answers almost all of my concerns with gcse, but I can’t claim to know the whole range. I think that a return to norm referencing might have some merits though. If thete is only one board per subject, how about each pupil being given their national rank score for each subject instead of a grade? – that would be very interesting.

  8. Thanks for this post, it nicely sums up the current situation.

    I am massively concerned by the one exam board idea. Look to the national curriculum tests for details. I think it is important that an exam board has some consistency with their staff, which wouldn’t be possible if they only had five years of exams at a time. And I want the option as a teacher to chose the assessment model and curriculm that suits my students. If there really was one exam paper easier than another wouldn’t we all choose it?

    I am concerned about the scrapping of the national curriculum. I have seen two examples of where a school has chosen to create their own curriculum and both have had negative results. I believe that the scrapping of the national curriculum is for the sole purpose of putting the publishing companies in charge of our curriculum. If you follow the tweets from our north American colleagues they are concerned about the influence of Pearson in their education system.

    I need more time to think about the two teir exams system. Do we not already have it with BTEC vs GCSE? Even my mum thinks that BTECs are “noddy” qualifications done by people “not bright enough to do proper GCSEs”. Although I believe that BTECs could be valuable if we teachers had not cheated so much and devalued them ourselves. What I can’t reconcile is that Gove had taken steps to try and reduce the BTECs that students take, and now he wants to introduce a second teir of examinations.

    The comment about independent schools not doing the CSE equivalents is spot on. No way we would put our students in for anything but the gold standard. They deserve the best, all students do.

    I do like the terminal exam. It will give me more time to prepare my students, especially as the science exams are so much more demanding and are probably more suited to students with more maturity.

  9. It seems quite scary really, I await with baited breath for the news that is going to follow on what is happening to A levels. I’m not a huge fan of students being able to resit lots of times, so maybe terminal assessment with some form of practical assessment is the way to go forward with courses (for science at least).

    I agree with you on the deciding point, how can we suddenly say that a 13 year old will or will not have the ability to head to higher level courses?!

  10. Ian,

    Head of nail – firmly hit. I agree that our snap responses to this leak were likely due to:
    a) it being a leak not a considered announcement;
    b) it being reported with hideous glee in the DM
    c) the timing of the leak.
    d) the emotive response that any mention of the O-Level was going to result in.
    e) the lack of published evidence supporting the reasons for the change.

    I would add a further comment about the timing and the politics of this leak. The DfE made a statement on Thursday 21st stating that they wouldn’t comment on leaks and one reason given that they weren’t going to release the report till July was that students were still taking their exams. The leak was published late on 20th by the deputy political editor of the Daily Mail (This report has been significantly edited from the version I read on the 20th after all the responses and Gove’s HOC appearance – does anyone have the original report as it went to print?). The comments they made about the current exam system were particular inappropriate as students were taking GCSEs the next morning. I heard reports of students suggesting that they may as well not sit the exams as they were worthless.
    My point is that whoever did leak that report, whether it was Gove or one of his advisors or indeed someone in the DfE who disagrees with the plan, did so at a most politically advantageous time to the Minister of Education. Both the PM and DPM were out of the country on international business (G20 and Rio+20) and this allowed him to make a statement largely unchallenged by the collalition. This was cynical timing from the point of view of our students still sitting exams and an sadly ironic one as well: GCSEs were introduced 28 years ago on the 20th June 1984 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/20/newsid_2516000/2516847.stm).


  11. By the way, I realise my comment was aimed at the politics of the situation rather than the educational value of the announcement.

    I agree with your points about terminal exams and the single exam board. I also wonder if the “race to the bottom” described by the commentators on the standards of GCSEs due to the competition is not exacerbated by the league tables. I think that competition in examinations and courses where schools are looking for the best mix of curriculum and papers could still remain if Ofqual set a minimum standard of question style etc (we’ve already seen the effect of this on exam papers over the last year or so). Then the exam boards would have to distinguish them selves on style/content rather than level.
    How we can standardise the next exam system when each separate subject is being examined by different exam board I have no idea. It’s either one board or the status-quo (with stringent minimum standards set) as far as I can see.


  12. I agree with mrweatherallscience about the politics of the situation and it is this that I find most disturbing – that national politicians will make political capital out of education without regard for the impact it may have at a localised level on schools and students. I think a solution has to be to divorce education from national politics somehow, but I am not clear how this can be achieved. Without this I fear that whatever well-intentioned efforts are made will be thwarted by political manoeuvring, as seems to have happened in this case. Sorry, I am trying to be positive, but sometimes there is only so far you can go …..

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