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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 August 2006, 05:27 GMT 06:27 UK
Are GCSEs easier than O-levels?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

GCSE pupils get their results
Would the old O-level prepare them better for life ahead?
This year it was the turn of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to rain on the parade during GCSE results week.

At least it was not the old refrain of "pass rates are up, standards must have fallen".

Instead, the CBI cast doubt on whether schools were educating young people in the so-called "functional skills" they will need in the workplace.

By this they mean skills such as: simple mental arithmetic, competence in percentages, legible handwriting, correct grammar and spelling.

Publishing its concerns in the same week as 16-year-olds received their GCSE results was an effective media strategy, although those celebrating their hard-earned grades may not have welcomed it.

In fact, the CBI had already won this battle. The government agreed a while back to include functional skills within GCSEs from 2010.

This has caused consternation amongst teachers, and even amongst some of the government's own advisers, who believe GCSEs already test these essential skills of literacy and numeracy.

Pupils' views

So who is right? Does GCSE English really prepare young people for the communication skills they need in work? Or would we be better off going back to the old O-level?

Let's look at some of the evidence.

GCSE candidates celebrate success
Ever-improving GCSE results lead many to lament the O-level

First, what do young people say after they have started work? The car manufacturer, BMW, surveyed the views of its young employees at the Hams Hall plant in Warwickshire.

It found that two-thirds believed school had not prepared them at all well to "use the telephone to request information or answer a query".

More than half felt they had not been prepared well for chairing a meeting, interviewing someone for a job, or reading and writing a text message.

By contrast, they thought school had prepared them well for: team-working, presenting a report, spotting a writer's bias, writing a report, word processing, drafting and editing, using correct punctuation and spelling.

Overall that seems a fairly good vote of confidence in school from this particular set of former pupils. Would we really expect school to prepare pupils for sending text messages or conducting job interviews?

The exams

So what about exams: how have they changed over the years?

I looked at a GCE O-level English Language Paper from 1956. It asked students to read a 350-word text about poverty and then summarise it in just 100 words.

Candidates were also asked to identify parts of grammar such as: verbs, nouns, prepositions, adverbs and adjectival phrases.

Further sections gave examples of ambiguous sentences (for example: "Two girls went for a tramp on the Downs") and asked candidates to rewrite them to show the two possible meanings.

Students and teachers cannot be blamed for focusing on the skills required by public examinations

By contrast, modern GCSE English papers test students on an extensive anthology of writing that they have studied over the past two years. It then asks them to comment on the use of language by the writers.

For example, a 2005 AQA paper asked candidates to "compare the ways" two poets presented a particular culture in two different poems.

The two exam papers could hardly be more different. The O-level focused on literal understanding, clarity of writing, recognition of parts of speech and the dangers of ambiguity.

The GCSE, by contrast, required much broader reading and more extensive writing by the candidate. There was no requirement to identify parts of speech or to summarise meaning.

However it did require candidates to show an understanding of the writer's message, including reading between the lines and analysis of how writers used language.

In many ways the modern exam requires more sophisticated skills. But are we, as some argue, trying to get pupils to run before they can walk?

Is it an essential prerequisite that students know what a preposition is and are able to paraphrase, before we expect them to conduct a practical criticism exercise on a piece of literary writing?

I suspect the answer depends on whether you regard school as a preparation for work or for something much broader.

Against the GCSE

I asked a couple of experts for their views on the respective merits of the O-level and the GCSE.

James Williams is a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex who, last year, taught O-levels again for a Channel 4 TV programme.

Despite having been a staunch defender of GCSEs in the past, this experience changed his mind. He now believes parts of the O-level should be incorporated into modern exams.

He believes one of the problems of the GCSE is that it now asks 16-year-olds to master skills that, in the past, were left until A-level or even university.

As he puts it, the O-level "really did test understanding". In English it "taught the structure of language and taught pupils how to communicate in different contexts and circumstances".

Williams' expertise is in science education where he says the GCSE breaks questions down into multiple parts, each requiring only a few words for each answer.

"I don't feel you can communicate in such a short space," he says.

His point is that you "only know if you understand something when you have to explain it to others".

For the GCSE

For another view, I asked Sue Horner, head of English, language and the arts at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority which oversees examinations in England.

She strongly defends the GCSE against charges that it does not equip students with functional literacy.

She points out that, unlike the O-level, the GCSE tests students' skills in speaking and listening, adding that employers "are saying it is really important to be able to present to others and to speak on the phone to customers".

She is also indignant at any suggestion that the GCSE does not test basics like punctuation and spelling.

One-third of the marks are allocated to these basics, she says, and it would be virtually impossible to get a Grade C if you could not spell or punctuate.

She believes today's students would find the O-level very dull and narrow.

"Whereas it used to ask students to paraphrase, we now ask them to get underneath the meaning, to sort out what is really being said, and whether it is being said persuasively," she says.

Functional skills

However, whatever you believe about the current GCSE, the fact is that the government has decided that students must, in future, be tested more specifically on functional skills.

As the government said in February 2005: "We will ensure that no-one can get a grade C or better in GCSE English or maths without mastering the functional elements."

For now, though, advisers and ministers are locked into a debate over whether the functional skills should be incorporated into the GCSE itself or tested separately.

Examinations are the key driver of the teaching and learning in our schools, whether we like it or not.

Students and teachers cannot be blamed for focusing on the skills required by public examinations. League tables demand it.

The problem they face is that society cannot agree what those skills should be.

Should English language exams be a test of the essential skills for effective functioning in the workplace? Or should they assess something much broader: an understanding of the nuances, sub-texts and uses of language?

Many would say it should be both. In which case a simple return to the O-level would not work.

But maybe there is also a case for ensuring that pupils can walk with their language skills before they try to run.

GCSE results have improved again
24 Aug 06 |  Education

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