The late 1980’s saw a major rethink in the way secondary school exams (those taken by 15-16 year olds) were organised with the introduction of the General Certificate for Secondary Education exams, or GCSEs for short. Teaching for these new exams began in 1986, with the first tests taken in 1988.
The GCSE exams unified the two systems that were in place before this, these being O Levels (or Ordinary Level) and CSE examinations. Ordinary level exams were the top level of examination available to secondary school pupils, whilst the CSE exams catered for those less academically gifted children.
The GCSE system combined the two to provide a single system, which it did by introducing a wider range of possible grades. O Levels used to featured grades from A to E and U, with A to C being classed as a pass, D and E a fail and U meaning ungraded. CSE exams used to feature grades from 1 to 5, all of which were considered a pass, and U for ungraded. Under GCSEs, grades A to C were broadly equivalent to O Level grades A to C. Grade C was also equivalent to CSE grade 1. Grades D to G covered O Level D and E grades (with F and G both being the same as a O Level U grade), and CSE grades 2 to 5. Finally the U category (now meaning unclassified) was right at the bottom of the scale.
The other major change to the system was that many subjects started to incorporate a coursework element. A percentage of the final examination mark was alloted to work that the pupil had done during the course of their studies towards the exams. This might take the form of a specific project, or a number of selected pieces of work. The idea was to enable those pupils who had the ability but didn’t do well in an examination environment to potentially achieve a better grade.
One strange side effect of some of the new examinations was that certain pupils could only ever achieve a maximum grade based on the examination papers they were taking. For example, the Mathematics exam was split into several difficulty graded papers, and each student was given two of these papers for their exam. If you took the second and third difficulty levels, the best grade you could possibly achieve would be a C.
Whilst the reasoning behind the examinations may have been sound, in recent years the examinations have come under attack for becoming easier and easier. One modification was the introduction of a new A* (A-star) grade to allow outstanding candidates a chance to shine, important since in some exams the percentage required to achieve an A could be less than 70%.
Every year when the examination results are released there will usually be at least one report in a newspaper stating that the examinations are getting easier. I believe this was even proved one year by giving a set of test pupils the old papers to see how they would do, and most struggled with the older papers. It also appears to have had a knock on effect with the A Level (Advanced Level) exams also getting easier, and most students now being advised to take a wider range of AS Levels instead. Should the UK fear that its educational system is becoming too dumbed down? I’m not personally in a position to state for sure, but if the reports are true then, yes, it would appear so.