I think I am on safe ground when I say that the recent proposals for the replacement of GCSEs, designed and announced and by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, have not been met with unbridled enthusiasm by teachers. There is the inevitable but entertaining vitriol from left-wing commentators like Jeremy Hardy (on BBC radio 4’s News Quiz) and well-written but also left-leaning comments by anonymous writers for national newspapers. The question I really want to ask is whether or not any of us have really thought about this properly.

My approach as a scientist to solving problems is to peel back to first principles and then work forward with a clear idea of what is evidence, understanding and hypothesis, in order to get to a point and which our collective understanding can be increased. I want to apply this to reform of GCSEs, just to see where it takes us. Then, I want you to tell me whether you think it makes sense or whether I have missed anything. I suggest that the first principle in this case is why we have qualifications and exams at all.

My understanding of why we have formal examinations is that with the results of them, we can tell students apart. Some are amazing, some are hopeless and there are a lot in between, and grading is our way of knowing who is which. My understanding of the reason why we have GCSEs is because it is useful for children to learn and understand about the world, and for anyone at or over 16 years of age to be able to show what they have done using an independent nationally-recognised measure in a given academic subject or set of subjects. GCSEs themselves go further, because the subjects taken also indicate what sort of things the pupil in question was best at, languages, English, sciences, etc. We can also tell where the centre of gravity is from the set of grades. A pupil who gets As in a few subjects and Cs in all the rest probably has a clear focus, where a pupil who gets As and A*s in everything is good but not (yet) focussed.

The problem with GCSEs is that they are actually limited in telling pupils apart or being able to show a focus. Grade inflation means that the GCSEs acquired in 2011 do not have the same value as those taken a decade before. This means that a paper given an A in 2011 may not have been given an A in 2001. Other adjustments, such as giving certain pupils more time in exams, extra tutoring etc appear from the outside to be distributed unevenly and/or unfairly. This makes commentators cynical about whether two pupils in the same exam room at the same time, who get the same grade, have the same ability. Another problem is that the testing of the subjects can be unfocussed: why test literacy in a science exam? I would agree that it is good to have literate school-leavers, and it is important to be able make oneself understood in any subject, but I would question whether either of these is achieved by testing the same ability half a dozen times in one set of varied GCSEs. Also, what about the things that the current qualifications have never sought to test? Obvious examples include hard work, tenacity, attitude, memory, consistency and practical problem solving. Surely, a rigorous set of exams should test whether or not a candidate could be arsed?

I would be very interested to know if any of this passed through the mind of the Education secretary in forming his plans for ‘Gove levels’. If it did, the resulting planned reforms seem perverse at the very least. From what I have seen, the only improvement from the understood shortfalls of the current system will be a reorganisation of the examining boards system in order to prevent grade inflation. This is undoubtedly useful as it means that the grade acquired really does mean what it says.

‘Meaning what is says’ is however, another problem with the current system. My evidence for this is from my teacher training a couple of years ago (I did a PGCE in secondary science). As part of this training, we all did a GCSE chemistry paper, a biology one and a physics one, and marked them. The results were surprising. The guy who did a PhD in physics got a lower mark than me in the physics paper even though he could clearly run rings around me where his subject was concerned. The girl who got a better chemistry degree than me and did a PhD in chemistry where mine is in chemical biology, got the same mark as me in the chemistry paper – and, needless to say, she can run rings around me too. This made me and probably the others wonder whether those particular papers really were testing understanding in the relevant subjects properly. We inevitably reached the conclusion that there were flaws in the GCSE system.

I maintain that those flaws should not blind us to the good points. Favouring the rote learning of O-levels because the test of understanding of GCSEs has been discredited by grade inflation appears crass. How good a memory a pupil has is a good thing to test because it is particularly useful for some jobs and some pupils genuinely shine at it. However, it is not useful to test it in 10 out of 12 subjects — and the same goes for the ability to write in essay format. It is useful for potential employers to know how hard-working someone is, both at doctoral level but also for manual work that requires no more intellectual input that the waste paper basket would give.

So, what about a set of exams that could test aspects of someone’s intellectual function as wide as understanding of calculus, the ability to play the difficult bits of Mozart’s Clarinet quintet and whether or not they put their back into something and make steady progress over a sustained period? Would a set of qualifications like that be rigorous, useful to third parties, and most of all, good for a child’s education? I think so. And I think it would be possible to design, implement and administer them without alienating teachers. What do you think?