A Return to O-levels?

I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am news on BBC Radio 3, which included an item about how Education Secretary Michael Gove is planning to scrap the current system of GCSE Examinations and replace them with something more like the old GCE O-levels, which oldies like me took way back in the mists of time.

There is a particular angle to this in Wales, because Michael Gove doesn’t have responsibility for education here. That falls to the devolved Welsh Government, and in particular to Leighton Andrews. He’s made it quite clear on Twitter that he has no intention to take  Wales  back to O-levels. Most UK media sources – predominantly based in London – seem to have forgotten that Gove speaks for England, not for the whole United Kingdom.

This is not the central issue, however. The question is whether GCSEs are, as Michael Gove claims, “so bad that they’re beyond repair”. Politicians, teachers and educationalists are basically saying that students are doing better; others are saying that the exams are easier. It’s a shouting match that has been going for years and which achieves very little. I can’t add much to it either, because I’m too old to have done GCSEs – they hadn’t been invented then. I did O-levels.

It does, however, give me the excuse to show you  the O-level physics paper I took way back in 1979. I’ve actually posted this before, but it seems topical to put it up again:

You might want to compare this with a recent example of an Edexcel GCSE (Multiple-choice) Physics paper, about which I have also posted previously.

I think most of the questions in the GCSE paper are much easier than the O-level paper above. Worse, there are many that are so sloppily put together that they  don’t make any sense at all. Take Question 1:

I suppose the answer is meant to be C, but since it doesn’t say that A is the orbit of a planet, as far as I’m concerned it might just as well be D. Are we meant to eliminate D simply because it doesn’t have another orbit going through it?

On the other hand, the orbit of a moon around the Sun is in fact similar to the orbit of its planet around the Sun, since the orbital speed and radius of the moon around its planet are smaller than those of the planet around the Sun. At a push, therefore you could argue that A is the closest choice to a moon’s orbit around the Sun. The real thing would be something close to a circle with a 4-week wobble variation superposed.

You might say I’m being pedantic, but the whole point of exam questions is that they shouldn’t be open to ambiguities like this, at least if they’re science exams. I can imagine bright and knowledgeable students getting thoroughly confused by this question, and many of the others on the paper.

Here’s a couple more, from the “Advanced” section:

The answer to Q30 is, presumably, A. But do any scientists really think that galaxies are “moving away from the origin of the Big Bang”?  I’m worried that this implies that the Big Bang was located at a specific point. Is that what they’re teaching?

Bearing in mind that only one answer is supposed to be right, the answer to Q31 is presumably D. But is there really no evidence from “nebulae” that supports the Big Bang theory? The expansion of the Universe was discovered by observing things Hubble called “nebulae”..

I’m all in favour of school students being introduced to fundamental things such as cosmology and particle physics, but my deep worry is that this is being done at the expense of learning any real physics at all and is in any case done in a garbled and nonsensical way.

Lest I be accused of an astronomy-related bias, anyone care to try finding a correct answer to this question?

The more of this kind of stuff I see, the more admiration I have for the students coming to study physics and astronomy at University. How they managed to learn anything at all given the dire state of science education represented by this paper is really quite remarkable.

Ultimately, however, the issue is not whether we have GCSEs or O-level examinations. There’s already far too much emphasis in the education system on assessment instead of   learning. That runs all the way through schools and into the university system. The excessive time we spend examining students reduces what we can teach them and turns the students’ learning experience into something resembling a treadmill. I agree that we need better examinations than we have now, but we also need   fewer. And we need to stop being obsessed by them.

13 Responses to “A Return to O-levels?”

  1. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    This may explain some of the difficulties students have my first year papers.. But in general, if children are streamed in secondary schools according to interest and ability, it makes much more sense to stream the exams as well. And if don;t stream, you waste both the academically best and least best students. I am trying to phrase this carefully as it was pointed out to me this morning that the most useful person we know is our plumber and you wouldn’t require an A-level in Physics from him. He will need an A-level in Math to deal with his bank.

    The correct answer to the last above is definitely A. Sound is encoded on the CD/DVD and they rotate a lot faster than the old records.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Some educationalists will argue that black is white and that GCSEs aren’t easier than O-levels, just different, but any informed scientist who has studied the papers won’t have much time for that sophistry.

    So rather than continuing to flog this horse, it occurs to me that a more interesting comparison might be with the old CSE papers. The O-level/grammar school system served those who went through it very well. The criticism of that system was focused on the branding of the majority of kids as failures, and this problem has to be acknowledged. But it always seemed a pity that we didn’t take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the O-level side and concentrate on improving things in the CSE world. The danger of having a single exam was always that you would level down to the lower of the existing systems.

    So does anyone out there have any 1970s-vintage CSE papers in physics and maths? The really scary thought is that current GCSEs might be less intellectually demanding even than those…

    • The current system doesn’t have single exams for all pupils – there are two levels (sometimes more) of GCSE exams (typically higher & foundation). The system is such that both are placed on the same scale: Higher allows you to get all the way up to an A*, where as you can only get a C at best with foundation.

      If Gove wanted to make GCSEs more difficult that would be one thing. The decision to scrap them entirely is overtly political and ideological.

  3. The question on orbits appears to be in a universe where Kepler’s laws don’t apply. Both A and C seem to be circles, so the star and planet at a focus should be in the centre of the circle. But they are not…
    I have seen some of the maths and physics that my American nephew is doing at high school. In a different league to the GCSE (and dare I say, to the modular A levels….)

    I see the grammar/comprehensive debate appearing in the comments. [Declaration of interest – I went to an academic grammar school with a very strong focus on science, possible as a result of it being founded in 1900 or thereabouts as a Technical High School to support the local railway works.] My view has always been that there was nothing wrong with grammar schools – but there was a huge amount wrong with secondary moderns, and with the 11-plus used to label most children as failures.

  4. electricgraffiti Says:

    Interesting to read an opinion of someone who actually did O-Levels.

    Personally I can’t see much wrong with the current system of examination, people tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Is anyone that gets an A* at GCSE level really that much worse than someone who got top marks 30 years ago?

    I wrote a piece about how the myth of the infamous ‘Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?’ question is being propagated.


    Check it out

    • telescoper Says:

      As I said in the post, the major problem is the syllabus and the way of teaching and that’s only partly evident in the examinations.

      A student with an A* in GCSE Maths would struggle with one of the old O-level papers, bot because they’re not as bright as people were 30-odd years ago, but because they’ve been taught a smaller set of skills and knowledge. This failing goes all the way into A-level.

  5. Chris Brunt Says:

    I’m not sure if this is the solution, but the current system needs to be fixed. I have a daughter who is sitting mock GCSEs this year, and I am regularly brought almost to tears helping her revise.

    Please have a crack at question 7 on page 24 here:

    Click to access AQA-PHY1BP-W-QP-MAR11.PDF

    I think 7B might actually bother me the most. They don’t mean? No!

    There’s an example 1970s CSE question here:


    which is more challenging than anything I have seen in current GCSEs.

  6. Richard Says:

    One of the irritating things about the discussion is that there already is a two-tier system in GCSEs: students are entered in to ‘Higher’ (where the lowest grade is a C) and ‘Foundation’ (where the highest grade is a C) papers. In science there’s arguably more tiering since you can study biology, chemistry and physics separately or just ‘science’.

  7. I teach GCSE level science in the UK and I have to say the pressure for exam results can force you to teach in quite a strange way: read excessive amounts of past papers and scrutinise the mark schemes for the prefered wording of answers. Often these are over-simplifications or out-dated. So when it comes to class room practice, if you want to teach with any real substance, it is necessary to make quite a big deal about saying “but don’t write that on your test!”

  8. This sure is the problem here,what basically is the idea behind leaving so much for students to grab as solutions when knowledge is less and concepts are scarce.

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