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Wednesday, August 26, 1998 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK


Ten years of the GCSE

Percentage of candidates getting 5+ grades A* to C over the last 19 years

The GCSE, the exam which replaced O levels, is 10 years old this year. As hundreds of thousands of candidates wait for their results this Thursday, BBC Education Correspondent Sue Littlemore has been reviewing the GCSE's performance.

In 1988, the government not only introduced a new exam but also dug the foundations for two opposing camps of opinion. Ten years on, the battle continues.

Patricia Stoll: "British children living overseas take the O level exam"
Patricia Stoll, a former English teacher, is among those who still mourn the passing of the O level. She believes it stretched brighter, more able children in a way that GCSE does not.

The O level was laid to rest in this country by the then Educatation Secretary, Keith Joseph, in an attempt to close the divide created by its predecessors.

The O level had earned the reputation as the exam for academic pupils; the CSE was for the rest. Crudely put, the feeling was that bright kids sat O levels while thick ones sat CSEs.

Keith Joseph was persuaded that a comprehensive education should lead to a single, comprehensive exam.

George Turnbull believes GCSEs are harder than O levels
George Turnbull from the examining group the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance believes the GCSE has been a success.

"Now the examination examines students in more ways than one, through coursework, oral, and aural examinations as well as written tests," he says. "You can't skate round the questions in the way you could with old O levels."

If GCSEs are harder, then it makes pupils' achievements over the last decade even more remarkable.

In the last year of O levels, the proportion of candidates who got at least five passes was 26%. The proportion who got the GCSE equivalent last year was 45%.

But some argue those results are too good to be true.

Anthony O'Hear: "Exaggerated emphasis on coursework"
Anthony O'Hear is a philosopher and has been a government adviser on education. He says there has been "rampant grade inflation".

Perhaps a useful question 10 years on is not whether the GCSE is easier or harder than the O level, but whether it is reasonable to try to test the abilities and strengths of everyone with a single exam.

Those who argue it is, and Keith Joseph was among them, were rightly concerned that we do not seem to be able to have differences in our education system without having divisions.

We become uncomfortable about the purely academic so that it becomes almost synonymous with "elitist", and we find it difficult to give real status and genuine esteem to people with practical and craft skills or technical talents.

Perhaps that is the real challenge for our exam system over the next ten years.

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