O levels: let's not go back to the future
For a political party the promise of a return to the ‘rigour’ of ‘O’ levels is seductive and guarantees column inches. But for those of us trying to nurture the very best learning for kids in schools it smacks of the icy cloak of straitjacket teaching to an elite. I did O levels at my grammar school in 1970 and they were neither more challenging nor more rigorous than GCSEs. They involved an end-of-course exam and lots (sometimes) of revision so that you could have mental diarrhoea for a couple of hours, then forget everything immediately afterwards. How much do you remember from all that revision?
What do we want for children?
We all want rigour and progress and outstanding outcomes for children – but also want them to have self-motivation, self-discipline, creativity, great communication skills and a love of learning. Bringing back exams that force students to remember stuff is not the way to do this.
GCSE hasn't worked perfectly but the flaws need to be remedied by looking forwards, not backwards
GCSE was introduced because employers wanted children to develop skills that would make them highly employable. It hasn’t worked perfectly. There are flaws that need to be remedied. But by looking forwards, not backwards to a system that didn’t work for the majority of children.
So let’s start by thinking about what we want the outcomes of education to be. How about:
- Children that want to attend school every day
- Great progress five hours a day, five days a week for all children
- Children working harder and achieving more
- ALL children developing the habits of the best learners – self-motivation, resilience, perseverance, optimism, communication skills, critical thinking and risk-taking – that equip them for success in a highly competitive, uncertain global economy.
How can we get there?
The argument is about HOW we get there. Consider:
- Has our present complex exam system with all its testing and where students take up to 14 subjects delivered the above?
- Will a return to ‘O’ levels and end-of-course testing in core subjects for selected students deliver the above for all?
- Are other countries returning to the type of exams sat 40 years ago by their out-of-touch politicians or are they focusing on how to develop 21st century learning skills?
Outstanding teaching, even as described by Ofsted, is about promoting ‘high levels of resilience, confidence and independence when they (pupils) tackle challenging activities’. The very highest order thinking skills involve evaluating, imagining, hypothesising, reflecting and predicting – not learning by rote.
Our exam system has delivered youngsters who arrive in Year 7 as enthusiastic, independent learners and are passive by 16
The exam system needs to focus on testing/proving whether or not schools, in 11 years of compulsory education, have actually delivered students who are better thinkers, creators, self-managers and communicators. Can our present exams or even ‘O’ levels ever really tell us if this progress has been made? In all my training experience in hundreds of schools many teachers tell me that many youngsters in Year 7 who come in as enthusiastic, motivated, independent learners have learnt to be spoon fed and passive by 16. That is what our examination system has delivered.
Conventional testing v dynamic alternatives
Children mature and develop their intelligence at different rates. All teachers have known students who were labelled ‘thick’ by testing at school, who went on to become rich entrepreneurs. We hadn’t tapped into their individual genius – but it was there, undiscovered or unsuited to conventional testing.
Has conventional testing at 16 any purpose, now that learning continues until 18?
If we make our exam system further value memorising over creating, defining over applying, then even fewer learners will succeed and help this country thrive and grow. And if we select at 11 and select again those who will take elite exams at 14, we further demotivate the majority of learners who we need to buy in to education.
Has conventional testing at 16 any purpose, now that learning continues until 18? Would a dynamic, challenging community project or business plan that applies their maths, English, ICT, geography, history, science, art and design – presented professionally to potential employers or academics – be a better way to judge at 16 whether we are delivering an appropriate education for the 21st century?
Let’s find ways to assess progress that actually delivers dynamic, determined young learners fully engaged and with the mindset for growth that makes them – and us – proud. And let’s do that for ALL children – not just those lucky (or rich) enough to get selected.