Proof that GCSEs are tougher and more rigorous than O Levels?

I spent an interesting morning at Television Centre today, appearing on Broadcasting House, the Sunday morning magazine show hosted by the affable Paddy O’Connell. Taking a light-hearted look at the current O Level and GCSE debate, he sat an English O Level question and a GCSE one; they were both ‘writing’ or composition questions. As a former exam boarder marker and veteran of marking GCSE scripts for twenty years, I was called in to assess his work. It was really interesting. The O Level question asked candidates to write about someone who thinks they are better than they actually are, and the GCSE question was to analyse the importance of listening. Paddy turned in a creditable O Level answer but spelt the noun form of ‘practice’ incorrectly, using ‘s’ instead of ‘c’, and somewhat inexplicably spelt ‘lily’ incorrectly! He clearly knew how to spell the word — he gave the correct spelling after the show to me — but must have suffered under the stress of exam conditions. His answer was funny — he owned up to being the person who thought he was better than he actually was! The interesting thing about marking his O Level script was that there was no assessment criteria to hand except the examiner’s report from that year. I had to improvise marking the essay; it was clearly an A grade; the tone, the paragraphing, the structure of the essay was, as you would expect, good, and, in the absence of any clear criteria, I had to give Paddy a good mark. Having spoken to O Level markers, I have no doubt that this is how O Levels were marked. You have to remember that only 20-30% of students took O Levels; this meant you could have a smallish pool of examiners, many of whom knew each other and spoke the same ‘old boy’ language. The discourse of the examiner’s report was like listening to some old codger watching the cricket at Lords with a glass of Pimms in his hand, talking about “slapdash” standards, too many “rapes” in one question, complaining about girls using circles above their ‘i’s and stating boldly, without any quantitative evidence, that standards were slipping. Plus sa change?

Marking the GCSE essay was both easier and harder. The marking criteria was very clear; for writing it’s divided into two main areas, Assessment Objectives i and ii, which were marked out of 20, and Assessment Objectives, iii, which are marked out of ten.

To get a top band answer, you have to meet these criteria for AO i and ii:

In this band a candidate’s writing:
 shows sophisticated control of the material and makes  effective use of linguistic devices.
 demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the task,  addressing it with complete relevance and adapting form and style with flair to suit audience and purpose.
 uses precise vocabulary which is fully suited to the purpose of the writing, conveying subtlety of thought and shades of meaning, and where appropriate is imaginative and ambitious in scope.
 uses structure to produce deliberate effects, developing  the writing coherently and skilfully from a confident opening which engages the reader to a very convincing and deliberate ending.
 is organised into coherent paragraphs which are clearly varied for effect and used confidently to enhance the ideas and meaning.

For AO iii, you have to meet these criteria for a top band answer:

In this band a candidate’s writing:
 uses a wide range of sentence structures to ensure clarity and to achieve specific effects relevant to the task.
 uses ambitious vocabulary with very few spelling errors.
 uses punctuation consciously and securely to shape meaning, with very few errors.

Unfortunately, Paddy’s answer just a little wayward and all over the place, though full of good ideas. With some teaching, he would achieve a top band answer, but his answer went off topic and lost focus in places, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have not achieved an A* as one would expect, but actually get a low A grade. It made me realise that at the top end, GCSE is a demanding exam; to really excel, you have to be pretty darn good! It also brought home to me — and Paddy — just how terrifying these exams are; Paddy confessed to being nerve-wracked and quite stressed by it. He took the GCSE question after the O Level question and it showed; he’d lost a bit of concentration. Many of my students  were taking two or three exams in one day; I’ve noticed time again that my classes’ results are worse if they’ve taken an exam in the afternoon. The poor things are exhausted!

I’m just not sure that these exams are an accurate test of ability, though there’s no doubt in my mind that GCSE English is a far more rigorous exam than the old O Level.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

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