I appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss Michael Gove’s proposal to replace GCSEs with O-levels and CSEs and there was near-universal agreement among the ‘educationalists’ present that moving to a ‘two-tier’ system was a retrograde step. They acknowledged that some children would benefit from doing O-levels rather than GCSEs. But such gains would be more than offset by the harm inflicted on those children forced to do CSEs. Telling a child of 14 that he or she isn’t bright enough to do O-levels would be an irreparable blow to their self-esteem. Much better to have a unitary system in which all children do the same exams, even if that means they have to be quite easy in order to be fully ‘inclusive’.
Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Münchausen syndrome by proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist’ and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.
There are so many reasons to embrace these proposal it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it’s already possible for children to take the equivalent of O-levels. They’re called IGCSEs. Problem is, with a few exceptions, you can only do them at fee-paying schools. It’s one of the reasons private schools are so heavily over-represented at Russell Group universities. The difference between the two-tier system we have now and the one Gove is proposing to replace it with is that, in the new system, children from all walks of life will be able to take the more rigorous exams not just those with rich parents.
But the thing that really annoys me is this idea that children who end up doing CSEs will never recover from the humiliation. Are British schoolchildren really so fragile that the ‘stigma’ of not doing O-levels will cause permanent damage? The sages assembled round the table on Newsnight were all nodding their heads in agreement on this point — it was so obvious that it didn’t require any evidence to back it up.
In fact, it’s complete balls, a piece of intellectual flotsam that has followed in the wake of the giant squid that is the therapy industry. As the sociologist Frank Furedi points out in Wasted, his attack on New Labour’s education policy, the view that a teacher’s main responsibility is to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next has been replaced by the belief that teachers are essentially therapists whose job is to correct the harmful effects on children of bourgeois society. It’s that view — that teachers are ‘enablers’ or ‘facilitators’, rather than anything that hints at didacticism — which underlies the all-must-win-prizes philosophy that’s so prevalent in state schools.
How do I know this? Why am I so confident that children are robust enough to cope with a ‘two-tier’ system? Because I was one of those children who was told at 14 that he had to do CSEs. Admittedly, not in every subject — I did O-levels in English language, English literature, maths and history — but in French, physics, art and drama. Not only that, but I failed most of them, too. I managed to scrape a C in English literature and a Grade 1 in drama and failed the rest.
Now, admittedly, I did feel slightly knocked back by this. I remember telling my mother that I wasn’t ‘academically bright’ — which is middle-class code for ‘thick as a plank’. But after a three-month spell in Israel working on a kibbutz (which turned me into a lifelong Zionist), I decided to go back to school, retake my O-levels, do three A-levels and apply to Oxford. In other words, I didn’t see failure or the fact that I’d been labelled a dunce as a reason to give up, but as a reason to try harder. If I’d done GCSEs instead — and, in today’s money, my terrible performance would have netted me eight A*s — I would have continued coasting along, gone straight into the sixth form and ended up at Oxford poly.
So three cheers for Michael Gove. And let’s hope the Prime Minister backs him all the way.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.