A few years ago I had a top set Year 10 Chemistry class, all targeted to get As and A*s. I can’t remember why, but I decided that they should do an O level paper (I think it was some sort of competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry). I started teaching them what they needed to know. There was a huge amount of new content and the concepts were much more advanced than those in the GCSE specification. They struggled. I struggled. After two weeks, we had only done enough for one O level question, which they failed abysmally. It was a dispiriting episode for the pupils and for me.
What had happened over the 25 years since O levels were replaced by GCSEs? Children’s brains had not changed – they clearly had the same innate ability. Had expectations been lowered? Probably. Had the thought processes required to do good hard science been suppressed by the focus on the different “skills” and methods of working introduced with GCSEs? Almost definitely.
The DfE’s focus has now shifted back on to a more academic curriculum, with the EBacc being more important. At the same time, the new GCSE specifications are harder and they are more difficult to pass. Are we starting to move back to O levels?
As always, we have to go with the flow every time the Government makes these seemingly arbitrary changes but it will be interesting to see what we will need to do in our practice to meet the new requirements. Will pupils taking GCSEs in the future understand chemical thermodynamics and be able to do partial differentiation? Or will they struggle to achieve the new standards and leave with low grades?Follow me on: