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The story of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)

The Basics & FAQ's
Schools in the USA
GCSE Courses
The Examination Boards
Registering for the Examination
Definitions and Glossary
GCSE & Homeschool
GCSE & Traditional Education
News & Updates
Higher Nationals
AICE IGCSE & Cambridge Program
IGCSE Teaching Materials

How does GCSE work
What is GCSE
Why Choose GCSE
What is the history of GCSE?

What is the background?

Single-subject GCE Ordinary level qualifications were introduced alongside Advanced Level GCSEs in 1951. 

O level was taken at age 16 mainly by pupils in grammar schools and independent schools – nationally the top 20% of the population by ability. Other pupils were mainly catered for by secondary modern schools where the opportunity to take public examinations was rarely available. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, most young people therefore left school with no formal qualifications.

In the mid-sixties, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced to provide a suitable target for a wider ability range. The new examination was graded from 1 to 5, with grade 1 being regarded as equivalent to O level grade C or above, and grade 4 being pitched at average attainment for the whole age group.

GCE O levels and A levels were offered mainly by examining boards with university links. CSE, on the other hand, was introduced on a regional basis, with 14 new awarding bodies being established to make awards in three `modes’ – with mode 1 being entirely board-run, mode 3 devolving considerable responsibility to schools, and mode 2 taking various intermediate forms.

What were the problems?

The regional nature of CSE, combined with enthusiasm for school-based qualifications development and new money for innovation from the Employment Department’s `Technical and Vocational Education Initiative’ led to a massive growth in the range of subject titles and syllabuses, many of them modular. Concerns began to grow on several fronts – in particular, regarding:

bulletthe proliferation of awards, and resulting confusion amongst users;
bulletthe quality of the associated courses;
bulletconsistency and fairness of assessment within and across sectors;
bulletcomparability of standards of award;
bulletpublic understanding and the status of the qualifications.

By the early seventies, it was clear that CSE was not able to thrive alongside the more familiar O level. The raising of the school-leaving age to 16 at this time meant that more young people were finding themselves in a position to gain qualifications. However, most opinion-formers and selectors for courses and jobs had O levels (and A levels), and were inherently suspicious of the newcomers. CSE developed the image of a second-class qualification and mode 3 drew out the suspicions of those who saw school-based assessment as soft on standards. The reality was that O-levels at grades D and E were often preferred to the higher attainment embodied in a CSE grade 1.

Where did GCSE come from?

The Schools Council (one of QCA’s early ancestors) led discussion through the seventies on the idea of merging GCE O level and CSE to form a new single system of examining at 16+. The GCE examining boards teamed up with groups of CSE boards to run experimental ‘Joint 16+’ examinations based on pairs of O level and CSE syllabuses and leading, as appropriate, to grades on both scales. A mass of evidence was gathered to demonstrate that it was technically possible to merge the two systems, but, by the time Shirley Williams as Education Secretary had decided to introduce the merged ‘GCSE’, Labour had lost the 1979 election and the incoming Tories blocked the change. When the Schools Council was disbanded in 1989, the new Secondary Examinations Council (SEC) was asked to advise on the future of examinations at the end of compulsory schooling.

What were the new ideas?

Many were surprised when Conservative Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph finally accepted the new Council’s recommendation that a single system of examinations with a single A to G scale should be introduced and run by groups of O level and CSE boards (four in England and one each in Wales and Northern Ireland). In agreeing to the reform, Sir Keith insisted:

bulletthat the new qualifications should be based on general and subject-specific criteria developed by the SEC with the boards – and approved by himself;
bulletthat the O level boards in each examining group should take responsibility for carrying forward the O level A to C grade standards into the new scale, while the CSE board in each group should do the same for grades D to G, which were to be based on CSE grades 2 to 5 respectively;
bulletthat most subjects should be examined through differentiated (tiered) papers focused on different parts of the grade scale, to ensure that each grade reflected ‘positive achievement’ on appropriate tasks, rather than degrees of failure.

The reform was a substantial step in the direction of a more inclusive system, and research evidence over the ten years that followed showed that the new examinations increased achievement and encouraged many more young people to study systematically – not just to the age of 16 but beyond.

Sir Keith Joseph‘s close involvement in the detail marked a step-change in the interest taken by government in what was covered in the curriculum and qualifications. It became standard practice to seek Minister’s endorsement of proposed developments, though current legislation makes it very clear that the criteria against which qualifications are accredited are the business of QCA and its partner regulatory bodies.

Quality and standards

In 1985-6, GCSE syllabuses and specimen examination papers designed by the examining groups were approved against national criteria by the SEC. This process represented a considerable movement in the direction of transparency and public accountability. The SEC also prepared supporting booklets and videos for schools, and supporting articles were published – subject by subject – by the Sunday Times.

In 1986, when the first courses began, teachers were initially somewhat nervous of the expectation that school-assessed coursework would make a contribution to each GCSE. By 1991, when John Major asked the School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC – the first statutory regulatory body) to limit the acceptable proportion of coursework, many teachers had become deeply committed to making a contribution to the formal assessment process.

Sir Keith Joseph had two educational passions. The first was to improve the lot of neglected lower attainers (the ‘bottom 40%’); the second was to base examination grades on ‘absolute standards of performance’ rather than pre-set quotas (not that the system was ever quite that crude!). Sir Keith asked the SEC to develop for each subject a set of ‘grade criteria’ to make performance standards explicit. Similar ideas influenced the introduction of the original national curriculum and its assessment, and a great deal of energy was expended before it was accepted that assessment and awarding systems designed to deliver ‘absolute standards’ were in practice unmanageable and incapable of delivering the certainties that some had thought possible.

The work had important legacies however. The basis for awarding GCSE (and A level) grades these days may not be as absolute as Ministers and officials had once hoped, but the process is now much better designed to support consistency across different specifications and awarding bodies and over time.

The position today

GCSE has been newsworthy throughout its relatively short life. The original merger of O level and CSE had its critics: some thought the reform too radical, others found it too cautious! The improvements in results each year have led many to celebrate the achievements of teachers and their pupils, while others despite the evidence of comparability studies - prefer to see them as indicative of falling grade standards!

When Sir Keith Joseph decided to press ahead, he suggested that the aim should be for 90% of the school population to reach the standard then defined as average (grade F). That vision caused some ripples of amusement (‘everyone will be above average’) but it has virtually been realised. So has David Blunkett’s more recent goal of 50% of 16-year olds achieving at least five GCSEs at or above grade C. One response to the growing numbers gaining the top grades has been the introduction of an A* grade in 1994; another has been a tendency for students to amass ever larger numbers of awards. The pros and cons of these developments provide the basis for a continuing debate!

The debate has recently focused on whether there is a need for an examination for 16-year-olds, now that most stay on in full-time education. The Government has recently shown interest in working towards a more coherent 14 to 19 phase of education and training, asking how GCSE can best be used as a progress check. The answer must take account of the fact that GCSE is used by older learners, including adults. QCA has been active in providing ideas to Ministers to inform thinking. The GCSE story is by no means over – but a new chapter may be about to begin.

Article taken from QCA Website