Saturday, 6 April 2013

Bring back O Levels? Don't be silly!

Posted 12th September 2012

When I took my O-level in English in 1968 they might have asked: What do you call someone who believes that everything was better when they were a boy? Of course we had multiple choice questions – a sort of pin the tail on the donkey/the answer is already given/don’t worry about spelling etc. 
So choices might have included:
1.) A recidivist fantasist who failed his driving test 6 times.
2.) A nostalgia- tinted obsessive who wore a kilt at his English university
3.) A self- inflated person somehow made secretary of state for education

The trick was in knowing which of the three correct answers was the one the examiner wanted. However, in what was largely a fact and date learning curriculum,  we spent many, many lessons doing past papers to learn how to second guess the examiners and the teachers all targeted their lessons on the questions most likely to be on the exam papers. Whole periods in history were omitted in favour of likely exam questions – my grammar school didn't much like studying The English Civil War, The rise of Trade Unions or anything suggesting Catholic clergy did anything untoward.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the spontaneous utterance of one’s thoughts (How many MPs fiddled their expenses ?
a) virtually all of them including ministers in all major political parties
b) very few and they went to prison for theft
c) these people are in charge of our country – they wouldn't be so immoral)

The problem comes when the utterer has power over young people’s lives, their futures, their careers, their self respect and their contribution to society. Even more so when their agenda seems to consist of saying,”You’re rubbish.”
20 per cent of children sat O-levels, so 80 per cent didn't get qualifications. Will we be happy with massive failure? In America, where the universities rank very highly on international scales, 71 per cent graduate High School and use this as a passport to further education or jobs. Why, on earth should we be looking instead to Singapore for a way forward.

The population of Sigapore is
a) about the same as USA
b) just like the UK’s
c) 5 million and 63 per cent of adults had no secondary education at all.

By the way in 1968 it was cold and we had no central heating, 2 TV channels, no computers, no mobile phones, few motor cars, many biased newspapers and very few ever took foreign holidays. Teachers did not need to be qualified and schools were crumbling Victorian celebrations of outdoor toilets. But, we had millions of manual jobs in coal mines, shipyards and docks and working mothers did some cleaning, office  or some shop work and generally stayed at home.

We can no longer dismiss 80 per cent of our population to educational failure in an unskilled economy. Yes, there are simple changes necessary to stabilise GCSEs: one exam board would be a start, an end to multiple qualifications for a single study would help, making A* grades exceptional might be useful. And no-one is doubting the importance of literacy, numeracy, communication and ICT skills. Oops, I forgot: Mr Gove has just removed ICT from the curriculum.

Dennis O'Sullivan

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