Hundreds of thousands of GCSEs are taken each year – yet that was not always the case. Older generations sitting through the school system might’ve done a whole different type of exam qualification instead of GCSEs, known as O Levels; this may be something the modern student nowadays has not heard of. What are O Levels then, exactly? When exactly did this switch happen?
To put it in short, O Levels changed to GCSEs in 1986 in the UK. However, they are still taken in other parts of the world, where the O Level curriculums are adapted to reflect local needs. O Levels were a type of qualification that pupils could take between 1951 and 1987 that were purely academic, and exam based.
While this may have given you a brief overview of when O Levels were replaced by GCSEs, it may be helpful to continue reading in order to get a more nuanced understanding.
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When did O Levels change to become GCSEs?
You may have heard of O Levels – maybe mentioned by a teacher or even parent – but a lot of students in this day and age have only ever heard about this mysterious qualification in passing and the main thing they know is that they’re no longer around. When exactly did they get rid of them?
O Levels were discontinued for UK students in 1987 – that was the year they were replaced with GCSEs officially. O Levels were introduced for UK students in 1951.
While discontinued in the UK, O Levels are still offered as qualifications internationally. Employers and universities still recognise O Levels for workers and students, who have taken them. In this way, O Levels are similar to how iGSCEs are offered to international students and still widely accepted amongst higher institutes of education and workplaces.
Therefore, while O Levels changed to become GCSE in 1987 in the UK, this doesn’t occur worldwide as O Levels and iGCSEs both exist.
For more information about when O Levels were discontinued, check out this Think Student article.
Do O Levels still exist?
As mentioned in the previous section, O Levels were discontinued in the UK but are still offered in other parts of the world.
Cambridge International O Levels are recognised globally in universities and workplaces. While O Level qualifications aren’t available for UK students, they are still part of a global standard outside the UK, for international students.
Some students may be wondering when O Levels take place, exactly. The answer to that is that O Level qualification exams take place at a similar time to GCSEs – June or November – with results coming out in August and January.
There are a lot of O Level curriculums developed for local needs. This could include things like minority languages and other obstacles locals could face if they went for the standardised version. In this way, O Levels can be extremely beneficial globally.
You can learn more about this on this page of the Cambridge International website.
What are O Levels?
O Levels were the qualifications offered to students before GCSEs existed; they were sets of exam-only qualifications and were purely academic. They were quite different to the UK education system the average pupil is used to today!
The O Level qualification was created to accompany the higher A-Level qualification – the O Level (General Certificate of Education) would prepare students for their A-Levels (General Certificate of Education of Advanced levels). Hence, these O Levels helped students develop their academic ability and flourish to meet the standards of a higher level of education.
Before June 1960, O Levels were strictly graded with either a pass or a fail. This put a lot of pressure on students as there was no middle ground which could act as a safety net.
Those who sat O Levels could only sit academic subjects – something like Art and Design wouldn’t qualify as one. Additionally, there were no coursework-based subjects – all grades were assigned on exam scores only.
O Level exams used to be conducted by regional exam boards, which have since merged into the four common ones we see today: Pearson, OCR, AQA and WJEC. If you would like to read more about O Levels, grades and exam board, check out this helpful guide from Pearson Edexcel!
To learn more about O Levels and what they’re equivalent to, check out this article from Think Student!
Why were O Levels replaced?
To fully answer this question, we need to take a look at the background. O Levels weren’t the only qualification being offered at the time – rather, there was another set of qualifications known as CSEs. While O Levels were aimed at the top 20% of students, CSEs targeted the next 40%.
This disparity between the two created a stigma, where CSEs were regarded as inferior – and that doesn’t even address the fact that these two only targeted 60% of all students. In short, something had to change to make the system for all students fairer. The tier system of two separate qualifications had to go.
GCSEs were introduced as the all-inclusive, single qualification for students. Sure, there was still a disparity between grades of students, but it wasn’t dependent on the actual qualification itself. Overall, GCSEs provided an opportunity to even the playing field for the students who had been neglected by the system.
Sure, there was grade inflation here and there – but the system became fairer, and employers stopped having preconceptions based on the awarding qualification alone. To find out more about the discussion surrounding the change to GCSEs, check out this article from Channel Four.
Were O Levels harder than GCSEs?
Here comes the age-old question: was this qualification harder than the one students do today?
However, putting these practical equivalents together and comparing them can be incredibly difficult. As these qualifications were never used at the same time and can’t therefore be directly compared to each other.
Students will have never sat both, so it’s tough to compare. However, looking at both papers, Laura McInerney argues in her 2012 article that students had a tougher time getting top grades in O Levels. As there were only a limited number of top grades available for students.
However, she also argues that the content for the GCSEs and O Levels is pretty similar in comparison. Though, the GCSE questions are harder, and the nature of the content is also more difficult arguably.
As a disclaimer, this is a subjective opinion, but the general consensus is that O Levels and GCSEs really aren’t that different. Tt’s what you’d expect from equivalents of each other.
To read more about her report on O Level and GCSE differences and similarities, check out her article by clicking this link to take you to the Laura McInerney website!
In conclusion, while some parents and teachers may argue that tests were harder back in the day, O Levels and GCSEs are pretty much equal.