Gove's crazy O Level plans

22 Jun 2012

 At first I just didn't believe the headlines. It must have been the usual political spin: Michael Gove's advisers trying to suck up to Tory traditionalists by emphasising a return to 1950's -style education. Usually, on closer examination, the policy proposals are not quite as daft as the headlines initially suggest.

 But it seems this time, Mr Gove really means it. He really does seem to be planning a return to O Levels in the sense of one exam system for the most academically able and another for everyone else. This is dangerous stuff.

 Remember, of course, that the GCSE is already a tiered exam, so students are entered for differentiated papers according to their predicted grades. But they key thing is that they are all doing the same type of examination, with the same name. There is no suggestion that some exams are less equal than others.

Origin of O Levels

By contrast, the old O Level and CSE system was just that. O Levels were introduced in 1951 for the most able 20% (at the time roughly the proportion that might be aiming to stay on for A level studies). As it became plain that having no school-leaving examination of the great majority of pupils meant many of them were wasting their last few years at school, lacking motivation to study, the CSE was introduced in 1965. It was aimed at the next 40% of the ability range.

In theory a Grade 1 CSE was the equivalent of an O Level pass. In reality, they were never given parity of esteem. So much so that many Secondary Modern schools quite rightly took the decision to enter their more able pupils for the O Level. Some students were entered for both and - unexpectedly - did better at the supposedly harder O level. This was because schools put greater effort into teaching the O Level because they felt it mattered, unlike the CSE.

Apples and pears

As late as 1980-81, the proportion of 16 year-olds achieving 5 or more good O Level passes was just 25%. Today the proportion achieving 5 GCSEs at Grades A*-C is 58%. This does not automatically mean that GCSEs are easier than O levels - as some claim - as that is like comparing apples and pears. The O Level was norm-referenced, in other words only a set percentage could pass each year. That was because the exam was devised primarily as a filter to winnow out candidates for the next stage of education, namely A Levels. The GCSE, by contrast, is criterion-referenced: achieve the standard and you get the grade, however many other students achieve it that year. 

It is equally facile to compare O level question papers with GCSE questions, since they are based on different syllabi and, more importantly, the GCSE has tiered papers, with question of different levels of difficulty according to the grades students are likely to achieve.

Now, to return to Gove's proposals, there may possibly be a case for making GCSEs more academically demanding. That would be reasonable if the exam is no longer providing the differentiation between pupils that is required for the next stage of education or for employers. After all, what is the point of an examination: in part it is to show what a student can do, and in part it is to differentiate between students. 

Crazy idea

But to go back to a discredited system of two different exam systems - one for the bright and one for (to quote from the reports of the leaked plans) 'the less intelligent - is just crazy.

One of the great successes of the GCSE - which remember was introduced by a Conservative government - was that it has shown itself to be motivating to several generations of students. Since it was introduced staying-on rates at school have risen fast, as has entry to university. Even those who insist this is all the result of dumbing-down, must surely see some benefit in students staying-on longer, taking more qualifications, and being motivated to undertake further and higher education?

There have been signs for some time that Michael Gove has been itching to go his own radical way on education reform, wanting to making his political name and perhaps further leadership ambitions. From the start, he showed no signs of wanting to listen to alternative views or even to the experienced counsel of his own civil servants.  

Alarming haste

 His haste is alarming. Gove wants the new O Levels to start within two years. When GCSEs were introduced it took a whole decade from the moment a Labour government set up a specialist committee to investigate reform until introduction under a Conservative government. Rushing in to exam reform has almost always been shown to be a costly - and damaging - mistake. The disruption to schools and to teaching will be enormous.

 What is so sad about all this is that we had the basis for a sound  set of evolutionary reforms with the Diploma proposals from Sir Mike Tomlinson. In the end, the last Labour government made a bit of a hash of them, allowing them to become too bureaucratic. But the idea of an over-arching single qualification was right. It still allowed for differentiation within that.

And, of course, a programme of purely academic qualifications is not right for all pupils. Many - perhaps all - would benefit from also taking more practical or vocational courses. But they must not be branded as second-class. 

Test for Nick Clegg

Before the election I can recall talking to a former education advisor to David Cameron. He was adamant he did not believe in a return to the old selective system that sorted pupils into sheep and goats. 'We know it didn't work', he said. That gave me hope.

But Downing Street has given Michael Gove too much rope. Hopefully he will be reined in by Mr Cameron himself. Otherwise there is a real test for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. They must stop this nonsense. To let it go through would certainly be too high a price to pay for maintaining the coalition.



User Comments

Rebecca Hanson - 22 Jun 2012


Did you notice the new primary NC draft which came out this weekend Mike? It seems Gove and Gibb couldn't get anyone to write what they wanted to so they've written it themselves......

It's horrifically ignorant.

Then of course there's Ofsted....
Here's an update insights into how easily that debacle could be sorted out:

Gary Foskett - 22 Jun 2012

Examinations at 16

Crazy seems like the right word. But why is there still so little discussion about the CBI's recent plea to get rid of exams altogether at age 16? The success of Finland shows they're not an essential part of a highly successful education system. Young people should have the right to a broader, deeper and richer experience of schools and learning, and the proper development of all their intelligences, not just an ability to do well in timed tests.

Jan Chambers - 22 Jun 2012

Vintage education

I agree with your statement that “… a programme of purely academic qualifications is not right for all pupils. Many - perhaps all - would benefit from also taking more practical or vocational courses. But they must not be branded as second-class.” What I believe is so sad is that, in this country, a narrow academic education is still viewed as the gold standard. Instead of using what we now know about learning and developing a curriculum which will meet the needs of 21st century citizens we’re so obsessed with vintage that we now seek to create a retro style education system. I use the word ‘we’ purposefully because there are plenty of folk who will be agreeing with Gove’s statements. There were a series of TV programmes recently where the great and the good reflected and reminisced on the opportunities they gained from attending a grammar school. As I understand it (please correct me if I’m wrong) about 25% of pupils were offered a place as a result of taking the 11+. So 75% were denied this ‘golden opportunity’. Like the old O’ levels, the 11+ was norm referenced so if you sat the exam in the south east of England you had far less chance of passing than in, for example the north, because there were less grammar schools per head of population in the south east. One of the reasons that some comprehensives struggled, and some secondary schools still struggle, is because they are offering their pupils a curriculum which is still largely based on an outmoded model derived from the 17th century. I applaud the drive for high standards. Who would want low standards? But high standards don’t just have to be getting everyone to university at any price. It should mean that we are creating opportunities for all pupils to excel whether in an academic, practical or vocational field.

Stan Terry - 22 Jun 2012

Gove's re-run of history

Well, it's a clear bid to be seen by the old guard as the next leader of the party. He cares not for anyone but himself. His weekly back of the envelope press statements, which are rarely though through, costed or based on facts are designed to keep him in the eye of the party.
Beware Mr. Gove " As he was ambitious I slew him " Julius Caesar. W. Shakespeare. I think Mr. Cameron may be aware of your vaunting ambition.
But in the meantime "The portrait of a blinking idiot" The Merchant of Venice. W.S.

Dave Peck - 22 Jun 2012

GCSEs, O levels & Gove

Quite agree with all your comments, Mike.
You say Gove has been given too much rope.
My take is he has his eye on his political ambitions and influential members of his own party & the press rather than on the education ball.
See 'Throwing the baby away...' :
Judging by the outcry he may just have used that rope...
Congrats on cancer journo award.

Steve Clark - 22 Jun 2012

Gove's O levels

Thank you Mike for putting some history behind this and showing how crazy this whole thing is. I wish all of those on newsnight earlier this week had read this first - Toby Young included!

Ian McLachlan - 22 Jun 2012


Why can't we de-politicise education and appoint a national board of experienced educationalists to steer a long-term, coherent plan for the school curriculum? We all know that education has been a cheap vote-seeking platform for the last 50 years, with the result that it swings back and forth in tune with political ideals and the aspirations of the secretary of state, who changes every two years. Clearly these people have no deep understanding of what they are doing. It's a short term challenge thrust upon them and they have a couple of years to make an impact which will sway the voter and give the secretary a platform for advancement. Is this how a nation which values education should conduct policy? The government's job should be to make The Board accountable, not nit-pick curriculum detail on the basis of the rose-tinted memories of their rarified private education of yesteryear!

TechnoTim2011 - 22 Jun 2012

My O level experience and why a two tier system fails.

I was 13/14. I was in school in Suffolk and the school held streaming tests for 'O' levels in Maths. At this point I went down with Chicken Pox.

I was unable to take the tests until a fortnight later when I returned to school. I took the test and was told I was in the top ten or so of my year in the results, but, since they had already decided who would take 'O' Level maths and who would take CSE Maths and the 'O' level group was full I was consigned to CSE Maths.

I was not alone, there were five of us in this same boat, and we had to put up with it, no chance of appeal. We all finished the CSE syllabus and work books inside a year, as I recall well inside the year.

We asked if we could take the 'O' Level, but the school said no.

In the CSE exam the five of us held an unofficial race to finish first. I did it in around 20 minutes, the rest not long after. We all got grade 1's.

Then when we looked at sixth form I was denied the chance to do 'A' Level Maths. Why? Because we only had CSE Grade 1 in Maths. We fumed and had to take an A/O in Applied Maths before we could take A level Maths. I left after one year not prepared for a three year sixth form stint. I eventually got my degree in Applied Economics but from North East London Poly not UCL or even LSE which would have been possible with an A level in Maths.

The other four took 3 years and then got their required degrees.

This is why a two tier system fails, unless Gove GUARANTEES every student who is good enough to take an exam gets the opportunity. But he can't.

He would have no sympathy with me, he would not care, I am working class and proud to be a proper Marxist Leftie.

He is summed up in one word = Pillock.

But I do see that education has failings, kids are not taught binary in a digital age. Real world algebra is a mystery to too many. This holds back software development for example the field in which I work.

So the solution is simple. Make the GCSE exams in two or three parts: an easy bit which gifted students should complete in under 20 minutes and then a hard bit that is optional. This would allow intellectual rigour while sorting the bright from the less bright.

But please please please no return to a socially divisive two tier exam system. You merely perpetuate the mistakes of the past.

Will - 23 Jun 2012

Criterion & Norm Referencing

I'm afraid I have to take issue with you on one point of this otherwise excellent post. You say that GCSEs are criterion referenced, in contrast to the norm-referenced O Levels. However, although mark bands and descriptors are used for GCSE marking, the raw scores attained through those mark bands are converted into UMS scores, whence the final grade is decided. There is no fixed mathematical formula for deciding the relationship between the raw score and the UMS score (although there is a fixed scale for UMS - grade conversion); instead, the exam boards simply decide what raw mark they think in any given year should be awarded 90% of the UMS points, depending on how candidates performed overall, in order to achieve roughly the right distribution of grades. Hence, GCSE exams are norm referenced, albeit in a less restrictive way than O Levels.

David Price - 24 Jun 2012

Well said Mike

Great post, Mike, and you'll know from my own piece in the Independent that I'm in complete agreement. My experience has been echoed here by TechnoTim, and there must be tens of thousands of similar cases. One of my commenters argued that if people like TechnoTim and I managed to succeed as a result of the sheep-goats strategy it just shows how effective it is. But of course, from every Tim there are thousands who don't feel able to fight the system, and resign themselves to low aspirations.
I also applaud your suggestion that ALL kids should take practical courses. But another false segregation we have in this subjects are either academic or vocational - 'disciplines' are always both. English Lit students study -writers study AND write. We shouldn't just encourage students to work with head and hands (because they all want to), we should teach disciplines through integrating the intellectual and practical.

And your comments on Tomlinson are spot-on. I was once told by someone who was an advisor to Blair that David Milliband was offered Sec of State for Education, but when he told Blair that he wanted to implement Tomlinson in full, it was swiftly taken away. How different things might have looked today!

Jan Chambers - 24 Jun 2012

Further thoughts ......

Just read David Price’s interesting article in The Independent (23.06.12). I think it underlines the huge importance of changing the language that we use. I failed the 11 plus exam so did not pass go into a grammar school and was labelled as ‘thick’ from the age of 10 years old along around 75% plus of other 11 plus failures. I did secure a university place and subsequently a good honours degree but the 11 plus failure stigma remains. I’ve since met many notable academics who also belong to the “11 plus failure club”. What we have to do, if we’re to capitalise on the nation’s talent and potential, is to recognise intelligence in all its forms not purely linguistic and mathematical. I am so tired of hearing politicians and others talk about serving the needs of the ‘brightest’ children and equating that ‘brightness’ with the ability to pass formal examinations. Take two success stories from different generations, Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver. Both left school without any formal academic qualifications. Both have become significantly successful. I think I’d describe them as ‘bright’ by any criteria. I’d suggest that what they both have are learning attributes including resilience and resourcefulness as well as the ability to relate to others and learn from their own experiences. No one in their right mind would say that we should not strive for all our children to be literate and numerate but they also need to develop learning attributes and attitudes which will then help them to apply whatever skills they have. We need good learners. I’ll offer a quote from Eric Hoffer which I believe sums it up. “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

@sjwilk - 24 Jun 2012

Re: Criteria & Norm Referencing

An excellent article.

As Will above pointed out GCSE are not strictly criteria-referenced. However, they are not norm-referenced either. A system known as "soft criteria referencing" is used - grade boundaries are set with regards to both grade descriptions and also previous cohorts. There is good evidence to suggest that this process has led to some 'grade inflation' over the years, no doubt fuelled by pressure from exam boards to get better results each year.

Of course we could never tell if 'O' levels were getting easier each year as they were 'cohort-referenced' - a certain proporton if each year's cohort would get grade A, B, etc. This is not quite the same as 'norm-referencing' - here the results are obtaind by a comparison to one set of 'normal' values, not to each year's cohort.

Richard Sewell - 24 Jun 2012

O level + CSE cohort

One major reason for not simply going down the retrograde route of O levels and CSE would be that, combined, they only "catered for" 60% of the cohort as we would understand it, the remaining 40% presumably disappearing into employment. As has been pointed out, by all means bring more differentiation within GSCE but keep the one exam.

Dr Graham Lawler - 26 Jun 2012


a shrewd observation as ever. But may I also point out that as an author and publisher this has caused havoc. We also have the removal of levels in England and therefore have had to pull 2 books from development and rework them because of this approach to policy development. Every time Mr Gove makes a change like this, it costs us a serious dollop of cash!

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› Mark Van Steenwyk: A Mennonite anarchist

2013-02-01 ISSUE:
Mark Van Steenwyk: A Mennonite anarchist

Mark Van Steenwyk's journey to radical Christian community

by Joanna Shenk, interviewer
Print Article Email to a Friend

Mark Van Steenwyk, originally from Becker County, Minn., lives in Minneapolis with The Mennonite Worker community. The Mennonite Worker (formerly Missio Dei) has been affiliated with Central Plains Mennonite Conference since 2007. I got to know Mark when I began working with Mennonite Church USA in 2009. Since then we have worked together on a variety of projects, including The Iconocast podcast and Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, to which he contributed a chapter. In this interview I was interested to learn more about the journey that led Mark to become Mennonite. His testimony offers encouragement and challenge to Mennonites today.

Did you grow up with a Christian identity? What were formative childhood experiences related to faith?
My family was functionally irreligious in my childhood. I’d visit Sunday schools from time to time, but it wasn’t until my early teens that I began to explore Christianity. A particular formative spiritual experience happened when I was 14 and attending a Bible camp in rural Minnesota.

Camp Joy had a campfire the final evening, right after the talent show. As the campfire blazed, a counselor led us in songs, and between them campers were encouraged to share testimonies. On this particular evening in the summer of 1990, most of the stories were depressing. Everyone shared melancholy stories of death and disappointment, of loss and regret.

In the midst of it all, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with a feeling that I had never before experienced. It was as though their pain was my pain. I felt connected to the suffering of the other campers and, even more confusing, to the suffering of the world. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that experience. It wasn’t merely a feeling of empathy—it felt cosmic. It didn’t feel abstract either; I felt as though I could feel the woundedness of the world. And the most painful part of that experience was that I knew, deep in my being, that I was a part of that. I was broken and incomplete. And I sobbed.

Sobbing isn’t the sort of thing a 14-year-old is supposed to do in front of peers. My camp counselor noticed my tears. He took me aside. He handed me a handkerchief, and asked me, “Would you like to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

I didn’t know what that had to do with what I was experiencing but assumed he knew more about these things than I did. I said yes. He then led me through the “sinner’s prayer.”

Looking back, I regret saying yes. While I love Jesus and affirm the spiritual nature of that campfire experience, I don’t believe what I was experiencing can be described as “being convicted of sin.” It was different—something that required discernment. However, the end result was that my mystical experience was pushed and shaped into the easy template afforded by evangelicalism.

Mark at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. Photo provided.

How were you taught to think about your identity as a Christian after that experience?
Well, when I returned from camp, I was given a Bible. I was told to start reading in the Gospels. Since I was a bookish kid, I dove in. I read through the entire New Testament.
The strange thing is that I immediately came to a radical conclusion from the Gospels: that killing and hating and acquiring wealth were counter to the gospel.

I didn’t know my conclusions were out of step with my fundamentalist charismatic congregation until one morning in Sunday school, when I offered to pray for the vets in our congregation—that God would forgive them for the killing they had done in the war.

And, shortly after that, I rebuked a youth worker who came to church driving a brand new, cherry-red Corvette. My rebuke was certainly lacking in charity, but I still think it was fair to critique the purchase, particularly because Becker County is a relatively impoverished place.

The response to all these early radical impulses was basically exorcism. Oh, they didn’t call it that—they called it “deliverance.” For several hours, I had the spirits of poverty and rebellion “cast out” of me. My radical instincts were cast out of me like demons. And so I became a good conservative charismatic youth.

As you got older, did the spirits of “poverty and rebellion” return, leading to a faith crisis at some point?
Yes. It was a combination of things that hit all at the same time of my life. Right around the year 2000, I started studying church history. I was overwhelmed by the corruption and violence found in so much of it. Around that time, I was considering seminary and enlisting with the Air Force with the intention of becoming a chaplain.

I started asking, Am I personally OK with killing? It was still an open question when 9/11 happened. I saw the Christian community capitulate to the will of a government bent on war. And I had been an adamant supporter of George W. Bush. But for some reason, it seemed obvious that the government was telling lies to justify war. Here I was, a Bush supporter, seeing obvious lies, while the church in America called for bloodshed.

All this pushed me toward pacifism. I began to realize, at the same time, that I didn’t have any theological use for Jesus besides his sacrificial death. I began to question everything, which led me to re-engage the teachings of Jesus. I became convinced that what he said and taught should be at the center of my faith.

Mark and his son Jonas protest fracking. Photo by Josh Miller.

What led up to you starting an intentional community in Minneapolis? What kinds of challenges did you face as a leader?
In 2005, Amy, my spouse, and I formed Missio Dei (we recently changed our name to The Mennonite Worker) with a simple premise; we would simply read the Gospels and ask three questions: (1) What is Jesus saying or doing in this passage? (2) What excuses are stirring in our minds as a way of justifying why we shouldn’t do likewise? (3) What is at least one thing we can do to walk in the direction of what Jesus is saying or doing?
These questions eventually led us into becoming an intentional community that centered its life around the practice of hospitality. The approach was largely experimental; there were no preset notions of what it should look like to follow the way of Jesus. Now, this was a messy process. We didn’t start as an intentional community but as a “hip” urban church. And we were doing fairly well with that. However, as our church slowly grew, it was comprised primarily of commuters. Only a handful of us lived in the neighborhood.

About a year into things, I scrapped it all and started over. This was a difficult decision. It appeared so foolish; why scrap what could be a successful church plant in order to start over? The only folks who continued on with us were ones receiving hospitality at our house and a couple friends.

Were you finding support for your community from other Christian groups as this shift was happening?
No. Before the “shift,” we were affiliated with the Baptist General Conference. Nobody there supported us becoming an intentional community. And we simply didn’t know any groups out there who were exploring the same radical ideals we were.

When did you first hear about Mennonites?
I knew Mennonites in high school. And, interestingly enough, the pastor of the church I attended in my teens was a Mennonite who had been kicked out of his church in the wake of the charismatic movement. I was rebaptized by a charismatic Mennonite. I like to tell Mennonites that this fact makes me technically more “anabaptist” than anyone I know.

For most of my life, Mennonites were just a group of old-fashioned Christians with strange beliefs. They lived, for the most part, in history.

As my community began to feel isolated, and I felt alone as a leader, I reached out. At this point in my life—about six years ago—I knew there were Mennonites out there who were keeping the Anabaptist spirit alive. I was familiar with Christian Peacemaker Teams and had read The Politics of Jesus. I went to the Mennonite Church USA website, found out there were Mennonite churches in the Twin Cities and sent off an email. That’s how it started.

What compelled your community to seek relationship with Mennonites?
I initiated it, but my community was on board. At first, there were a few folks resistant to the idea of joining a denomination. We tend toward anti-institutionalism. But for me, it hasn’t been about joining a denomination but about placing ourselves within a tradition in which to practice mutual submission.

What’s been life-giving about connecting to Mennonites? What’s been demoralizing?
It’s always amazed me how quickly Mennonites get what we’re about. It can’t be overstated how much this helps our sanity. When we first shifted into an intentional community, I remember trying to explain the shift to some pastors I know. After an hour, they still couldn’t wrap their minds around it. The majority of Mennonites I’ve met understand the gist of The Mennonite Worker in just five minutes. Ethics—how we live out the life of Jesus in our world today—is at the center of what it means to be a Mennonite. That is huge. Many Mennonites share our commitment to active peacemaking; almost all of them respect our commitment to hospitality.

We enjoy our relationships with other Menno­nite churches in our area. Faith Mennonite has let us use their facilities for events. We’ve had friends from Washington Mennonite Church in Iowa teach us how to can food. We get visitors from various Mennonite communities who want to get to know us; we love visitors.

But there have been some demoralizing pieces as well. I’ve met folks who have been Mennonites for decades who still feel like outsiders. We welcome folks with our words but often push them away with our actions and cultural hang-ups. To be a Mennonite, for me, means accepting the reality that I’ll never be as Mennonite as other people. I can handle it because as an educated white man with Dutch ancestry, it isn’t a huge cultural leap for me to bridge. And since I get invited to speak at Mennonite gatherings, I have access. But it is discouraging to me that some of the members of my community will always be on the outside of the Mennonite world.

I find it challenging trying to talk about economics with Mennonite folks. We confuse frugality with living simply. To me, living simply in the way of Jesus is about living with our basic needs met so that we can share the abundance of God with others. It’s about challenging economic injustices and living into the Jubilee. Many Mennonites don’t see how their commitment to peacemaking is at odds with their acceptance of capitalism, wealth and privilege.

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