THE BLOG

Michael Gove Got a G in GCSE history!

20/05/2013 11:50 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST

OK, that was a barefaced lie, but it caught your attention. That's what headlines do, and it seems that they inform government policy. And it seems that government policymakers barely get to read below the headline.

Robert Downes, champion of the small business, seems to suffer the same problem. He seems to think that Morrison's problems with the literacy and numeracy of their staff is due to poor standards of the GCSE. This is patently not true. Morrison's issue came when opening a new store. Of the 210 staff who were to start work when the store opened, half had left school with not a single GCSE to their name, and lacked what Morrison's consider basic employability skills like 'turning up on time' and 'holding eye contact', as if these are essential for stacking shelves. As far as I know, there isn't a GCSE in 'how to be a good shelfstacking employee', and there certainly wasn't even a CSE in that in the 70s. Further, half of them didn't even have the GCSE in Maths and English that is so heavily criticised, not even a G grade.

Michael Gove seems to think that the GCSE is too easy, and that we should wind back to the good ol' days of O Levels, and the CSEs, remember? But lets have a proper look at what the GCSE does, in comparison to O Level/CSE. With all the noise about O Levels, we seem to forget that there were also the hugely divisive CSEs. I went to a grammar school (but the skin of a 11plus exam) but my sister didn't. I got to sit O Levels, she wasn't even taught O Levels, let alone allowed to sit the exams. She had to do CSEs. The whole system was set up to separate shelf stackers from boffins, and prevent shelfstackers becoming boffins.

The GCSE wasn't really created because the O Level had become too easy, it was created to heal the divide between CSE and O Levels, and created a continuous educational experience so that able students regardless of their social background could be assessed to the limits of their capability. So when O Level/CSE became GCSE it stopped being a case of 'I have an O Level', and should have become 'I have this grade in GCSE'. This is the big that Robert Downe's small business forum seems not to have grasped. To have a GCSE now means that you could have an A or a G grade; and it's still a pass. You didn't get G grades at O Level, you failed. If you were lucky you were entered for a CSE paper at the same time and you got a 1,2,3 grade in CSE, IIRC.

So, the situation we have today is that GCSE's are not measuring employability- that is for employers to invest in the employability of their staff. Since when did employers get into the habit of socialising the costs of training their employees? the situation we have is GCSEs measure a wide spectrum of abilities, without division. The pupils are streamed within the GCSE awards, but they have the opportunity to sit a harder paper if they show skill and commitment. The old system didn't care how much skill, talent or commitment you had. If you couldn't pass an 11plus test, which was based primarily in certain middle class reasoning skills that posh schools coached their pupils in, you couldn't extend your qualifications beyond CSE.

So, what should Gove really do? There seems to be lots of criticism, but little constructive alternative. The GCSE's should perhaps be further developed to make them more difficult at the top of the grade scale- but that could be achieved by abolishing the separation between GCSE and A Level, allowing pupils to be examined at whatever level they are capable of- there is already an integrated set of academic standards that support this.