The return of O Levels: wrong sledgehammer, wrong nuts?
I am not sure why the Daily Mail was chosen for yesterday’s leak about exams. Perhaps ministers hoped The Mail would reveal that GCSEs cause and O Levels prevent Cancer (see the kill or cure website for their track record on this).
Dividing the policy idea into two halves (you can tell I got a maths O level): we need a qualification in each subject at 16 that prepares the brightest for further study (let’s call this a Grade A), gives a clear standard for almost all other pupils to aim for, based on a common agreement of the knowledge and skills you need to thrive as an adult (this should be more or less a C), and has some staging posts to assess achievement between and below these points (all those other letters). This can easily be achieved through a single qualification that doesn’t prematurely lower expectations and life chances for a significant number of 14 year-olds.
The second half of the idea has received less criticism, especially from the Lib Dems, but is possibly more sinister. A healthy market of exam boards should give consumers choice, raise quality and lower price. All it needs is decent regulation to ensure equivalency and prevent any allegations that some exams are easier than others. The proposed quasi-nationalisation of the exam system may rid us of the equivalency problem, but carries huge risks around quality and value for money.
According to Tony Breslin from UK PolicyWatch, secondary schools spend more on examination fees than on classroom resources. If cartels are emerging that push up price, selecting single exam boards to run each subject feels like a clumsy way to break these up. We may actually need to encourage more competition and a greater number of innovative providers who can use new technologies to reduce costs, improve the assessment experience, and possibly build additional competencies that employers and others value into subject-based assessment.
More worryingly, a single exam board enables ministers to have a single channel to push through their prejudices about syllabus content, especially in English and the humanities. All those leftie phonics-hating poets or right wing colonialists could be struck off reading lists at the drop of a contract. I am not saying that this administration would play this game, but politicians should always design policies fit for tyrants, as well as heroes.
If there is appetite for radical changes to our assessment system, we should question again why, with the school leaving age now at 18, we need any external examinations at all at sixteen. The previous government came close but ultimately bottled it on this issue, despite having nothing to fear but the Daily Mail itself. Might this Coalition dare to be bolder?