O Levels……The Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

Prior to the leak of 21st June, O levels were rarely spoken of and then usually only by those long out of touch with education. Who would have predicted that they would make such a dramatic return to centre stage in 2012? Who could have foreseen our current national debate about their part in a 21st century strategy for raising standards?

The Secretary of State’s case for a return to O levels rests on two frequently stated (but far from proven) criticisms of the current state of our education system:

  • Standards have fallen
  • GCSEs are not demanding enough

Mr Gove’s assertion that a return to ‘O level style’ exams at 16 will deliver the desired improvement in standards has polarised opinion, with, broadly speaking, traditionalists supporting the proposal and modernists opposing it.

But who is right? The widespread coverage of the GCSE / O level issue has not answered the three fundamental questions:

  1. Is there evidence of falling standards?
  2. If so, can the decline be attributed to GCSE exams?
  3. If so, would a return to O levels reverse the trend?

With far-reaching policy decisions to be made about our examination system, we must be mindful of the profound implications for the curriculum and for the future of our young people and our country. It is clearly vital these decisions are informed by firm evidence of their potential success.

Falling Standards


England’s rankings in the international PISA tables have been cited repeatedly by Mr. Gove as evidence that standards have dropped. Careful analysis of these tables is required to ensure alignment of evidence with resulting policy change. Results are available for England for reading, mathematics and science for each of the three most recent test years: 2000, 2006 and 2009.

England’s rankings show a marked downward trend from 2000 to 2009 in reading (7th to 25th), mathematics (8th to 27th) and science (4th to 16th), although the analysis is complicated by the fact that the number of participating countries doubled over this period (from 32 to 65). The 2006 rankings are also revealing (17th, 25th and 14th respectively), suggesting that, by this time, the decline had already all but halted in mathematics and science.

So PISA rankings do show that England’s position slipped over this time period relative to other participating jurisdictions (some are regions rather than countries). The decline, while not calamitous, is clearly a not a satisfactory state of affairs for anyone with an interest in education and the future prospects of the nation. Obviously policy change to improve PISA rankings must be developed on the back of a deep understanding of the evidence the tests provide.

Can the decline be attributed to GCSE exams?


Interpretation of complex data sets is notoriously challenging but there can be no-one better qualified to provide analysis of PISA data than Andreas Schleicher, Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD, the man responsible for the production of the PISA tables.

To ascertain the extent to which the decline is related to GCSEs, it is necessary to understand issues such as precisely what PISA is testing, the strategies other countries have adopted to improve their rankings and the performance profile of English students.

Mr. Schleicher describes the focus of the tests as follows:

“PISA tests students’ ability to apply their learning to think critically, solve problems and make judgements”

He described Japan’s successful strategy to improve its rankings thus:

“Japan responded by moving away from a narrow knowledge-based curriculum and focusing more on skills and broader understanding”

His analysis of the performance of English students was that:

“The top 20% of students in England perform as well as the top 20% anywhere in the world”


So the criticisms emerging from PISA which could be leveled at GCSEs are clear.  They:

  • fail to develop young peoples’ abilities with respect to thinking for themselves and applying their learning
  • focus too much on knowledge and too little on skills and understanding
  • fail to provide equal opportunities for the development of all learners, favouring those at the upper end of the ability range

Would a return to O levels reverse the decline?


In order to answer this question we need simply to assess the extent to which O levels would address these shortcomings of GCSEs.

The rhetoric in support of a return to O levels has focused on the twin assumptions that:

a)    we need a more traditional approach with knowledge being downloaded by teacher ‘experts’ into pupil ‘empty vessels’ and

b)  it is our more able students who are not keeping up with their counterparts in other countries

PISA evidence is unequivocal regarding the balance of knowledge and skills and about which students are underperforming in England compared to young people elsewhere.

Turning back the clock to a time when the teaching was narrowly focused on knowledge will not bring about a reverse in our rankings, indeed quite the reverse. This is not to downgrade the importance of knowledge, as traditionalists are inclined to suggest. Successful learners are those with a wealth of skills to enable them to apply their knowledge and with confidence in their own abilities so to do.

Similarly, providing a greater degree of challenge for more able students, desirable though it may be, will not lead to higher PISA rankings as these students are already doing comparatively well.

Thus a return to O levels is obviously not the answer and the question we should be asking is not a closed one confined to traditional teaching methods and more able students.

The right question


How can we ensure outstanding outcomes for every one of our young people and equip them all to become successful participants in the global economy of 21st century?

The right answer – five proposals

Retain GCSE examinations while:

  1. reviewing the future of examinations at 16 when formal education continues to 18
  2. reviewing the impact of GCSEs on learners of all abilities and making any necessary changes based upon reliable evidence
  3. carrying out a full and open analysis of national and international evidence and taking account of the views of education professionals and the wider public in decision-making over future policy
  4. developing overarching National Curriculum aims setting out an ambitious vision of success for every learner so that policy decisions are outcome-focused
  5. ensuring that all proposals for the education system are forward-looking and take account of the changing global environment and developing technologies

There is no dispute about our common cause. We all want optimum outcomes for all our young people.

Mr. Gove’s ‘leap before you look’ approach is a recipe for bad policy and he and his Government colleagues should consider the likelihood that his belief he knows better than education experts means he is wrong. This extraordinary arrogance has certainly compounded the widespread opposition to his proposals amongst professionals.

In these challenging times we need a collaborative approach from the entire profession and politicians across the spectrum. Mr. Gove might like to consider how these proposals would help him bring this about.

As Andreas Schleicher points out in his ‘Five Things I’ve Learned’ piece (http://www.thefivethings.org/andreas-schleicher/ – ) :

‘When you could still assume that what you learned in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content and routine cognitive skills was at the centre of education. Today, where you can access content on Google, where routine cognitive skills are being digitised or outsourced, and where jobs are changing rapidly, the focus is on enabling people to become lifelong learners, to manage complex ways of thinking and complex ways of working and to live in a multi-faceted world as active and responsible citizens.’

Jurisdictions around the world have been waking up to the fact that these old assumptions no longer apply. Leaders around the world are recognising that the complex challenge of developing these lifelong learning skills requires a new and imaginative approach to the curriculum.

England cannot risk being in a minority of one, looking back a quarter of a century and opting for a solution on the basis of nostalgia rather than analysis of evidence.

A proper review of the evidence would ensure that we ask the right question and clearly demonstrate the folly of a return to O levels.



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4 responses to “O Levels……The Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

  1. Excellent piece written in a balanced way and using evidence objectively. Others could learn from it. See my latest post on assessment.

  2. A brilliantly clear and logical argument against the return of O Level exams, and a sound recommendation for what’s really needed.

    BUT (and it’s a big but), why do the experts – and even the relatively ‘progressive’ experts at that – still feel inclined to define an ‘ideal’ (or at least better) education by reference to the methods we use to measure small parts of it. The problem is surely that, for a number of reasons, schools in large part set their subject curricula according to the examinable specification of their selected Board, rather than by what could or should define a rich encounter for the student with that subject. Once more schools start to cast their own curricula nets widely and broadly, with knowledge and academic skills taught alongside opportunities to develop important characteristics, habits of mind and other key social competencies, then Gove and the rest of us can examine little bits of that acquisition however we want. It won’t matter.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ben.
      Our education system has always suffered from too many people arguing the case for their own specialist area and too few with a focus on the big picture. Hence we have a piecemeal curriculum.
      We also have key performance indicators which provide schools with perverse incentives to do what is best for league tables rather than what is best for young people.
      The Curriculum Foundation, with our colleagues at Whole Education, has been promoting a real baccalaureate which would be awarded to young people for academic achievement and a range of key personal development work / life skills.
      One day we might have a government with the vision to recognise the value of educating the whole child and every child.

  3. I’m helping to trial the Better Bacc, and have been involved with WE for a couple of years now, so I’m with you all the way on these things. My point was that in an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter what assessment a school or student selects for individual subjects, as long as they’re appropriate, and are but parts of a far greater, far more meaningful, more valuable whole.

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