Monday 17 June 2013

16+ examination revamp no big deal.

I can't get too excited one way or the other about Michael Gove's further meddling with our national 16+ examination. This has changed its form several times in my lifetime but normally without all the hype that tinkering with the education system presently receives.

When I entered secondary school in 1949 the 16+ cohort was still taking what was then called the School Certificate.  To obtain one of these it was necessary to pass in at least five subjects, which had to include English and Mathematics.  By the time my turn came this had been "reformed" into the General Certificate of Education at Ordinary Level - commonly known as "O-levels."

The big change was that candidates could sit for any number of subjects  (no longer a minimum of five) and a certificate would be granted even if  the pass mark were reached in only one. This caused holders of the School Certificate to regard the O-level system as "dumbed down,"  though I doubt if the term had then been invented. The new generation riposted that, whereas the School Certificate pass mark was only 30%, they had  to reach 40%.

In the earliest days specific marks were revealed: say 57% or 39%, but in he year I took it, 1954, marks were rounded to the nearest five, and the pass mark was raised to 45 (much to the chagrin of one of my friends, who achieved 40% in at least three subjects, along with those he actually passed, under the new "tougher" regime.  Nevertheless, he flourished and became very rich,  I believe,  by running car boot sales.)  Later these rounded marks were changed to grades of which  1 - 6 were passes,1 being the highest, and 7, 8 and 9 were fails.

O-levesl  were designed to cater for the "academic elite, bless us, (those going on to higher education or into the professions,) and in the mid-60s a national examination for the less academic, called the Certificate of Secondary Education, or CSE, was introduced. It was I think at this stage that more diverse methods of assessment, such as coursework and ratings by teacher, were introduced to supplement the traditional "end of course, all or nothing" examination.  Most teachers welcomed this, but many,  including myself, argued that it was an error to give the examination a different name, thus separating pupils into sheep and goats almost as badly as the old 11+ selection examination had done.

(Later when I worked in Papua New Guinea I discovered that the New South Wales state government had a splendid system which reduced if it did not entirely avoid this division: different subjects in which was still the School Certificate could be taken  at any of "Advanced," " Credit,"  " Ordinary," " Modified" or the rather charmingly named "Activity" levels.  Candidates were still required to pass in at least five subjects, but I doubt if it was possible to fail "Activity" if you stayed the course. Britain has a lot to learn from other countries but refuses to take notice)

Some 20 years later, in 1987, this error was recognised and the two systems were merged into one, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE.  The ratings nomenclature changed and letters rather than numbers were given for the levels of achievement, with A (later A*) being the highest. Sadly only passes at levels  A - E were regarded as acceptable - lower ones were generally considered failures.

Gove's current meddling involves changing yet again the nomenclature of the grades (8 becomes the top and presumably 1 the bottom - just to confuse things?), discontinues  the modular system and the possibility of endless resits, and cuts out course work and teacher assessment for all except science subjects, where the need for practical work is recognised.

I think most teachers, and certainty those responsible for constructing examination timetables, will welcome the reduction in resits .  (Leeds University had a good system, I thought.: you were allowed one resit in any one subject, but however well you performed you were restricted to the pass mark of 40%.  This, in addition to the whopping cost, provided a strong incentive to prepare properly the first time.)

However, the other changes are highly debatable and depend very much on the personal preferences of both the teachers and pupils.  As a teacher I disliked the modular system and preferred to teach economics in whatever order I liked rather than have my subject wrapped into little bundles by an external authority.  On the other hand most universities now teach and examine under a modular system, and my experience as a recent student (mature, of French, as a retirement hobby), suggests that this leads to a higher level of understanding than that engendered by the structure of the economics degree I took in the 60s, which required study of eight  subjects for two years and then an exhausting couple of weeks of fielding "ask me anything you like" questions about anything from all of them.  (That was just Part 1: Part 2 was easier with just five subjects after one year).

Similarly as a teacher I avoided course work when there was an alternative, put off by observing the desperate attempts of my colleagues to get pupils to submit their work on time. But some pupils, especially those with nervous dispositions, strongly prefer it

What Mr Gove should realise is that there is not one way, certainly not one "best way," to teach or examine anything.  He should leave it to the teachers, and examination boards if necessary, to decide what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how pupils should be assessed, and stop interfering.

The irony is that, when the "big boys" of my school days took their School Certificate it was for most of them  genuinely a leaving certificate.  Many very able people left school at 16 to enter professions such as law, accountancy, local government, journalism, the civil service, as well as business and apprenticeships.

 Today the school leaving age is effectively 18 and it is hard to see the need  for a nationally monitored examination at 16.  Maybe it's just another instrument with which to bully the teachers.

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