This article is about the secondary school leaving exam once taken in the United Kingdom. For the CIE O Levels taken in Singapore, see Singapore-Cambridge GCE Ordinary Level.
The O-level (Ordinary Level) is a subject-based qualification conferred as part of the General Certificate of Education (GCE). It was introduced as part of British educational reform in the 1950s alongside the more in-depth and academically rigorous A-level (Advanced Level) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. England, Wales and Northern Ireland replaced O-levels with GCSE and IGCSE exams in 1988. The Scottish equivalent was the O-grade (replaced, following a separate process, by the Standard Grade).
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O-levels were predominantly exam-based; this had advantages for students in part-time or evening education. Some commentators criticised this mainly exam-based approach as offering only partial proof of the student's overall ability in comparison with other methods (e.g., coursework-based assessment). There was no summative "school certificate": each subject was a separate O-level in its own right.
Madsen Pirie found that the O-level was advantageous to boys because of exam-based learning. Pirie also observes that the GCSE focus on coursework has disadvantaged boys, reversing the gender gap in attainment, to the degree where in all subjects girls outperform boys, including traditionally male subjects such as sciences and physical education.
From 1963, passing grades for the O-level were 1 to 6 or A, B, C, D and E. In the former case grades 7 to 9, and in the latter case U (Unclassified), were classified as a fail. Most certificates did not include the grade that was awarded; this was issued separately on a results slip. Subjects with results graded 7 to 9 or U were not listed in the certificate. From the summer of 1975 onwards, all boards adopted the same system, with grades A to C equivalent to the previous pass grades. At the same time, a change was made from numerical (1-6) grades to alphabetic grades (A-E).
In 1988, O-level qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were replaced by a new system, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE); previously, the O Levels itself had replaced the School Certificate over thirty years before. This meant that the final O-level examinations were taken in 1987, while the curriculum for the new system was introduced in 1986. However the O-level is still used in many Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh, Mauritius,and Singapore . Some British schools also reverted to exams based on the O-levels. The Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination was also benchmarked against the O-levels for comparable subjects. But it has switched to benchmark against the IGCSE.
O-levels continue to thrive as well respected international qualifications for students in other countries, who use them for preparation for advanced study in their own country and/or access higher education overseas. In June 2005, 12 million candidates from more than 200 countries registered for O-level examinations across the world. Institutions that offer O-levels include Cambridge International Examinations (CIE).
In 2012, it was revealed in leaked documents that Education Secretary Michael Gove planned for the return of the O-Levels in England and to scrap the GCSEs. The leaked documents suggested the plan could be that students in England sit more traditional O-Levels from 2016 onwards, with the papers set by a single examination board.