As we enter 2019, Britain is evaluating the outcome of the first public secondary education examinations following the reforms of former education secretary Michael Gove who resigned his office in 2014.
Our two main examinations are the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and the Advanced Level (A Level). The GCSE is taken at the end of class X (age 15-16) in preparation for either entering into the sixth form (classes XI-XII) at school, or leaving to start a job. The A Level exam is taken in class XII (age 17-18), mainly as a qualification for university entrance. For years, the quality of these examinations has been declining, with massive grades inflation exceeding even currency devaluation. Even as these examinations became easier, many were taken on a fragmented modular basis that made a deep and lengthy course almost impossible to achieve, and they often involved large components of course-work, which is easy to ‘fiddle’.
In a society of seemingly ever-falling standards, it is reassuring to see that Gove managed to stop some of the rot in secondary education. Modular examinations and course-work contributions have been largely abolished, and the new syllabuses are much more demanding. The grading system has also been changed and stiffened to make it easier for universities and employers to assess the quality of candidates, and although the grading in the first ‘transitional’ year of the new examinations was softened so that the full rigour of the new system doesn’t apply immediately, the quality and reliability of the results have certainly improved, and are likely to continue to do so.
Regrettably, Gove’s reforms in secondary education don’t solve the tertiary level problems caused by the vast expansion of universities 25 years ago, when all the technical colleges and polytechnics, instead of being upgraded in a way appropriate to what they were designed for, viz, to provide high-quality vocational education to less intellectual students, were designated universities. The result was a decline in their standards in technical subjects and a proliferation of third-rate pseudo-academic courses wholly inappropriate for universities worthy of the description, while leaving unemployable graduates saddled with student loans they are unlikely ever to repay. So desperate are some of these institutions to get “bums on seats” that they are admitting almost anyone who can write her name to remain in business and avoid insolvency.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that Gove’s reforms, welcome as they are, would have been unnecessary if the excellent system of General Certificate of Education’s Ordinary and Advanced Level exams (GCE O-level and GCE A-level) of the 1950s and 1960s had been retained. Unfortunately, ever-meddling popularity-seeking politicians and educational babudom could not leave well alone. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!” should be written in huge letters above every government building in the country.
(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a Cambridge classical scholar and former professor at Cape Town University)