Education Secretary Michael Gove has again thrown the education system into confusion by undermining it with leaked reports that he is preparing to scrap GCSEs for England and return to "O-level style exams" whatever that means.
"Sources have told the BBC Mr Gove believes GCSEs 'have gone beyond the point of rescue'" whatever that means and with no evidence to support the assertion.
"Less academic pupils" would sit a different “more straightforward” exam, "like the old CSE".
On the one hand, it seems that he wants to raise academic standards, while on the other creating a two-tier system first with the "new O-levels" in English, maths and science running alongside GCSEs in other subjects, and then with the 'O-levels' and new second class CSE-style exam a system abolished under a previous Conservative government.
A single national exam would be too reductive, producing a very narrow, prescriptive and monolithic structure, which would be more akin to many of the continental models of education (especially the French model). This would undermine teacher professionalism and encourage ‘teaching to the test’ even more.
Education isn’t like preparing for a driving test it's about expanding horizons, increasing understanding, fostering a love of learning and appreciating a wide range of knowledge, ideas and skills (both practical and cognitive), all of which would be put at risk by the introduction of a national test which would put the curriculum into a straitjacket and restrict learning.
Instead, he should be creating parity between academic and vocational qualifications and asking himself if the system should be testing children's knowledge and understanding or their ability to recite facts and their skill at passing exams.
Mr Gove seems to be yearning for some mythical 1950s-style golden age of school caps and blazers, blackboards and chalk, inkwells and mortarboards.
The timing of all this couldn't be worse. As the BBC points out:
"This leak to the Daily Mail seems to have taken officials at the Department for Education by surprise.
"The timing is certainly not good, with tens of thousands of teenagers in the final days of their GCSE and A-level exams catching headlines suggesting the government does not think their exams are tough enough."
Meanwhile Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews has said that Wales will not "return to O-levels", rightly pointing out that making announcements through newspapers was a "bonkers way of proceeding".
"The fact that the number of awards at A*-C has increased by only 0.8% this year, and in the proportion of top grades at A* and A is up by 0.6%, does not support the panic that GCSEs are becoming easier and need to be tightened up and made more rigorous.
"What really frustrates teachers is the repeated interference from government ministers, resulting in constant flux and moving goalposts. Education is not a game of football it's a preparation for life. In spite of promises made by government that autonomy is being handed back to teachers and schools, there is still an appetite among Ministers to control everything rigidly from the centre.
"Rather than continuing to interfere with a stable examinations system, which is widely respected and regarded throughout the world, the Government should heed its own calls to put power back into the hands of the people who are the experts in this the teachers, awarding bodies and other education professionals .
"By choosing to emphasise the importance of that which is easily measured, the Government seems to have lost its way. The increasing obsession with tests, tables and targets risks forcing teachers to 'teach to the test' rather than provide pupils with a rounded education.
"In order for education to be a preparation for life (including working life), pupils need a range of skills, some of which such as self-confidence, initiative, flexibility, emotional intelligence, communication skills and problem-solving ability are difficult to assess on a formal basis."
When plans to end the modularisation of GCSEs and move towards a single final exam were announced in 2010, Voice General Secretary Philip Parkin commented:
"While Voice would welcome fewer exams in total, there are advantages to modular exams and to coursework. They give a more accurate assessment of where pupils are at different parts of a course and encourage pupils to focus throughout a course rather than just prepare for exams."
"Is the Education Secretary once again going against his own policies? If he believes that modular exams encourage teachers to "teach to the test", to the detriment of a broader subject knowledge, isn't the same true and even more so of final, linear exams, where everything depends on one set of tests at the end of a course, making that the ultimate priority? Could ending the modular system have the opposite effect to the one Mr Gove hopes to achieve?”
In a review of standards, Ofqual found a number of anomalies in the system. As Conor Ryan points out, such reviews are "duly spun to a grateful media as confirmation of a concerted dumbing down drive over the last decade". However:
"There has been a move away from essays towards multiple choice questions on some papers. In other words, a move away from analysis towards testing knowledge of facts. Now, in many ways, I happen to agree that this is a retrograde step. But isn't the tenor of what the Government has been saying that we need more facts and fewer skills. Won't the result be that we move towards more multiple choice questions like this and fewer 'more demanding' essay style questions?
"A big complaint of the dumbing down brigade on science was directed at an effort to make the subject more relevant and interesting at GCSE through 'How Science Works'. Fascinatingly, Ofqual tells us that in GCSE Biology "this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall" and in Chemistry it even made it more demanding. (Earlier reports on physics and on general science had been very critical in 2009)."
Mick Waters, Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University, rightly pointed out in The Daily Telegraph:
"There is the perennial worry about whether exams are getting easier as more youngsters succeed. After 23 years of a continuing increase in performance we ought to congratulate our teenagers and thank our teachers more than we do."
"But an industry has built up behind the exams. The awarding bodies are in competition to attract custom."
"If we have to have these exams, do they have to take place as harvest every summer?
"Could the syllabus for a subject be made available just 50 days before the exam, so that the big ideas would have to be understood in order to be revised at that point?
"Or maybe we could publish the 150 possible exam questions two years ahead of the exams and generate the actual paper on the day.
"Practice such as this would ensure breadth and depth in study rather than exam practice. We might end up with real scientists, historians, geographers, designers and linguists, rather than people who pass exams so that they can drop the subject immediately.
"While we have a system that fuels these vicious circles, we are bound to have nagging doubts.
"Should we look again properly at exams or should we simply wait for hindsight?"
"As plans to raise the school leaving age are, it seems, still to go ahead,[until 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015] there is certainly a need to take a fresh look at 14-18 education. GCSEs are already failing many 15 and 16 year olds who would benefit more from a less academic and more vocational pathway from age 14, so one solution would be to have an assessment at age 14 (which could be teacher-led rather than external) to ensure that pupils can choose a suitable pathway (academic, vocational or mixed) from Year 10."
"The whole assessment system needs to be transformed, with more teacher and ongoing assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils, parity between vocational and academic and an end to the constraints of the narrow and pointless EBacc."
Are standards of examinations really falling? Should we return to 'O' levels and GCSEs?
Would one national examination, rather than different exams from competing boards help to raise standards?
Do exams encourage "rigour" or does coursework give a more accurate assessment of where pupils are at different parts of a course and encourage them to focus throughout a course rather than just prepare for exams?
Do let us know your thoughts