One of the commonest criticisms of Michael Gove’s proposals to reform England and Wales’ examinations is that it would recreate a two-tier system: more prestigious O-levels and less-good CSEs, instead of the universal GCSE that exists today.
The problem with this argument is that many commentators don’t seem to realise that GCSEs are themselves a two-tier examination system.
GCSEs have a wide grading system. There are nine possible grades obtainable at GCSE, A* (the best) to G and then U, which means Unclassified. Technically, anything other than a U is a pass-mark. Despite this, there is a de facto acceptance that a ‘Good GCSE’ is one with a grade of A*-C. School league tables measure the number of students obtaining A*-C. Many colleges, universities and employers consider anything below a C as effectively a fail-grade.
This is acknowledged in the structure of the GCSE exams themselves. Many GCSE subjects – including core subjects English and Maths – are formally examined in two different papers: Foundation and Higher.
The Higher track has possible grades of A*-D. Any student that takes GCSE Higher exams (and coursework) and doesn’t get at least a D fails all the way with a U grade.
The Foundation track offers grades of C-G. The absolute best that a student in the Foundation track can do is to get a C-grade, considered the lowest “good GCSE”, but it’s actually pretty hard to fail a Foundation exam outright. Anyone who actually gets a C in a Foundation paper probably shouldn’t have been sitting it; they should have taken a Higher paper and possibly achieved a higher mark.
In many schools, GCSE subjects with tiered exams are taught in ability-streams or sets, with the top classes being prepared for the Higher paper, the bottom sets learning material for the Foundation course, and maybe students in middle classes being assigned to a course by their teachers depending on performance.
This initial streaming, though, would usually happen at the start of the GCSE course, at age 14.
Interestingly, the Government’s own DirectGov website describes these as “tiers”:
…you have a choice of two tiers: ‘higher’ or ‘foundation’. Each tier leads to a different range of grades. Your subject teacher normally decides which tier is best for you.
Many private schools won’t offer Foundation papers at all and won’t sit students for them, so journalists who didn’t come up through the state system and whose children go to private schools might not have encountered them. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t been mentioned very much.
So is the Gove proposal really that different? I don’t know, and certainly there is at least some fluidity in the current system. A student who improves rapidly can be moved from the Foundation to the Higher track. Perhaps this could be preserved betwen CSEs and O-Levels?
On the other hand, given that there’s already a two-tier system we might as well treat it with some respect. What would be more impressive: a low A in a future CSE or a high E-grade in a GCSE today? Nick Clegg’s answer would presumably be the latter, but it’s not clear to me that he’s right.