The Great GCSE Debate; as 600,000 Teenagers Receive Their Results, the Mail Asks: Did They Take a Simpler Exam Than Their Parents?

Daily Mail (London), August 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Great GCSE Debate; as 600,000 Teenagers Receive Their Results, the Mail Asks: Did They Take a Simpler Exam Than Their Parents?


A DECADE after the GCSE replaced O-levels, arguments continue to rage over whether examination standards have declined.

Supporters of the current system say students must show a greater depth of understanding by demonstrating analytical skills instead of simply memorising facts and dates.

Traditionalists insist the O-level was a tougher test requiring a mastery of knowledge and argument. They say the style of GCSE questioning helps students to present the right answers instead of challenging them to show what they know.

And, despite furious denials from examiners, they believe pupils need to know less now to get a decent grade.

On the right we show how the different style of questions by comparing typical questions in this year's GCSE exam in history with a similar one faced by O-level students in 1987.

This example demonstrates the marked and much-criticised shift from key events and facts towards social history and evaluation of 'sources'.

And below, two eminent educationalists give their arguments on which system they say it is better and why.

A watershedindumbing down Britain

For O-LEVEL

By RICHARD THORPE

Former schoolmaster of Charterhouse

WE ARE assured by government spokesmen and examination board PR men that GCSE standards have never been more rigorous and that anyone who claims otherwise is by implication an educational dinosaur.

Yet the doubts persist. Employers are certainly underwhelmed by the qualifications on offer, parents are rightly concerned and university admissions tutors know that many candidates have neither the depth nor range of knowledge that they once had.

Last year, I moved after 33 years of teaching to take up a fellowship at an Oxford college and was depressed to find that the lowered standards of GCSE and A-levels at school level had filtered through to higher education.

Perhaps it was naive to think otherwise. If one builds on straw, the edifice cannot be strong.

Of course, it is an achievement to attain high grades in any examination, however devalued, and there

will be many pupils and their parents today who will be justifiably proud.

But over the years there has been a steady dilution of expectations.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which British education went into decline, so lengthy and inexorable has the process been. But the replacement of O-levels by GCSE in 1988 was a defining watershed.

The whole philosophy of the GCSE exam is based on twin untruths. Firstly, that everyone is deserving of a prize, like some children's party where the host does not want too many tears at bedtime; and secondly that educational standards can best be measured by 'units' of coursework. The first premise was patently absurd, and is part of the general 'dumbing down' that is affecting British society at all levels; the second was open to abuse of all kinds, as there is absolutely nothing to prevent cheating.

Syllabuses are 'open ended', lacking in intellectual rigour, and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

History GCSE, in particular, is subject to all kinds of ideological nonsense about 'empathy'.

In the 1950s, students of O-level history would have been expected to appraise serious issues of international relations in a rationally organised essay, rooted in objective factual evidence, not rely on subjective and impressionistic responses to visual aids and coursework. In the old days, O-level pupils would have had to discuss the grievances behind the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. GCSE courses just encourage pupils to empathise with one of the spear carriers. Coursework is difficult to monitor and offers the opportunity for pupils to cheat.

REAL academic coursework, based on primary research, is quite simply beyond the powers of the GCSE candidate.

How many of us have seen geography students sitting by the roadside, filling in pie charts on traffic flow? …

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