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Fascinating Archive - were O-Levels really harder?

(147 Posts)
HPFA Mon 24-Apr-17 20:16:46


An archive of old exam papers -the link is to Maths but other subjects to the left.

As 1984 was two years after I did O-Levels this is particularly interesting for me. The paper did bring back memories of how I could sort of do some of it. (Got a C). I'm amazed at how difficult the 1957 paper is - is it just the different measurements and currency used which makes it seem harder? If noble has time to look at it her perspective would be very interesting.

Should provide plenty of scope for discussion. A-Level and GCSE papers also have links.

GU24Mum Mon 24-Apr-17 20:50:43

I think I found that one on line - spent ages working out how to do the maths then got frustrated as there wasn't an answer sheet so I could check them!

bigmack Mon 24-Apr-17 20:57:54

I got a B in maths in 1983 and I don't remember any of that stuff.

TeenAndTween Mon 24-Apr-17 21:01:37

I just has a quick look at the '84 paper (when I was doing Maths A level), comparing by memory to the 2014 paper DD did for her mock GCSE. I think the '84 paper was a bit harder, as fewer 'easy' questions, but maybe going up to the new '9' standard? No stats though that I spotted.

I didn't look at the '57 paper but they did more geometry back then so I suspect that stuff was harder but other topics missed. Also they wouldn't have had a calculator paper ....

I have all my '82 O level papers. I looked at them when DD was doing her GCSEs. I didn't think they were particularly harder for a lot of subject, just different.

(I can't remember how to find the determinant of a matrix though. I have an idea, but not confident!)

TeenAndTween Mon 24-Apr-17 21:05:20

Also, you maybe didn't have to get such high marks to get the top grades? People didn't 'expect' to get full marks for anything except occasionally maths. Whereas now you read about people getting full marks for arts subjects which I think would have been unheard of in the 80s.

bananacake1 Mon 24-Apr-17 21:44:58

In Scotland, in 1984 (o'grades) 70%+ plus was an A. You could get a sub-band of 1 by getting over 90%, but the certificate only listed the A.
Now, 33 years later, DC's school seem to think that it will take something like 95%+ to get a "9" in the new GCSE.
I think it encourages perfectionism, which isn't healthy.

Sadik Mon 24-Apr-17 22:01:58

I think it's also important to remember that only a small proportion of pupils ever took O levels - even more so going back to the earlier papers.

My DM left grammar school in 1956 with 1 O level, and went straight into a trainee place with a bank, then moved into a decently paid job with ICI with prospects for moving into middle management.

My Ddad is a bit older & even pre-dates O levels (left in 1950) & also went to grammar school. To get the School Certificate then you had to pass 6 subjects including English & Maths - he was advised not to even bother staying on to take it. He did in fact sit the exam - and scrape a pass - just out of spite I think as he'd also already got a job as a management trainee at the HQ of a supermarket chain.

I'm pretty certain that both those jobs would ask for a degree these days - at the very least decent A level passes.

Even in the 80s when I took O levels, only the top set sat them, everyone else sat the CSE (and a fair few of the top set were double entered for both exams).

So in that sense it's not surprising that O levels were different - they were aimed at a small slice of the year group, mainly those who would be continuing on into further education.

Sadik Mon 24-Apr-17 22:07:37

Sadly I can't find any old CSE papers online - no-one ever seems interested in them despite the fact that a quick search suggests that 80% of pupils took CSEs rather than O levels.

NennyNooNoo Mon 24-Apr-17 22:16:33

I was the second year to take GCSEs after O levels were abolished. I remember our chemistry teacher telling us how much of the 'hard chemistry' syllabus had been cut and replaced with stuff that was more general knowledge particularly concerned with environmental issues, most of which we should know anyway without being taught. Some people used to call them G so-easies...

noblegiraffe Mon 24-Apr-17 22:21:38

I looked at the 1957 O-level paper - that's very difficult. On stuff that we still have on today's syllabus, the algebraic manipulation and so on is more advanced. A couple of the questions on arithmetic and geometric series made me smile as I was doing almost the exact same questions today with my Y12 for AS, and the logs manipulation question just before it was more difficult than anything that would appear at AS level. It's possible that they also spent more time on fewer topics to a greater depth, but I also seem to remember that back in the 50s loads of people failed their O-levels, despite being the bright kids so it was probably difficult back then too.

The 1984 O-level paper on the other hand is fine. Aside from the differences in syllabus, there's plenty on there that wouldn't look out of place on a GCSE paper. Obviously GCSE higher papers are supposed to cater to a greater percentage of pupils so start with much easier questions, but the level of difficulty they reach seems comparable.

One thing to bear in mind with the 1957 O-level paper is that pupils were much better at arithmetic and converting imperial units than us, so questions that look horrendous to us would have been simple to them. For example, this is an 11+ paper from 1932 - look at what the brightest kids would have been doing in primary school:

eddiemairswife Mon 24-Apr-17 22:22:04

I did Olevels in 1954. Looking at the 1957 paper I reckon I could complete it now without too much trouble. Mind you, I was in the top set at a grammar school, and did maths at university. As someone earlier said Olevels were designed for for the higher achievers. Most pupils at that time would have left school at 15.

Hassled Mon 24-Apr-17 22:29:24

I did O Levels - 4 As, 4Bs and a C, which in the early 80s was considered really good. In these days of 10 A*s that would be seen as decidedly average. But still - I reckon it was much easier. I got those results just by memorising stuff. I never understood Physics; I got the B because I had a good memory. Ditto Maths - I never really grasped what I was doing; I just knew the formulae. We didn't care about context in History - we just memorised dates. Now you need to have the understanding - it's all so much broader and you can't wing it to the same extent.

eddiemairswife Mon 24-Apr-17 22:34:23

Do they have to write essays for History or Eng Lit?

cantkeepawayforever Mon 24-Apr-17 22:37:20

In 1984 yes - History was 4 or 5 essays in 2.5 hours, IIRC. No extract or source questions or anything like that.

I don't remember English Lit so clearly .

Sadik Mon 24-Apr-17 22:40:54

I'm pretty sure you had to write essays for English lit (1986) - but it was definitely possible to wing it with a selection of all-purpose memorised quotations (got an A without ever reading the entirety of Cider With Rosie).
I think as Hassled says above in those days O levels rewarded those with a good short-term memory.

willdoitinaminute Mon 24-Apr-17 22:40:56

Interesting but grades were awarded differently. The top scoring 10% of the entrants were awarded an A the next 15% B and so on ( may have the percentages wrong). At A level if you were likely to be in the top 2% you were entered into S levels ( A* pupils).

ChampagneSocialist1 Mon 24-Apr-17 23:04:29

I think the main difference between Olevels and GCSEs are the former prepared you well for Alevels I can't remember thinking Alevels were a really big step up as happens now with GCSEs. Agree with posters that said Olevels were only taken by 20% of the year group and as my teachers said designed to fail you. I also think we wrote a lot of long essays in Olevels whereas ds1 GCSEs require much shorter answers.

sashh Tue 25-Apr-17 05:43:41


You may have done a different syllabus. The maths I did and the maths my brother did were very different. That paper is all things I covered but my brother had no clue about.

nooka Tue 25-Apr-17 05:54:33

I was the last year of O levels, and A levels were a big step up. In fact I think they were harder than my subsequent degree, although easier than my masters. I was entered for an S level, but no one said it was because I was very good! It was disregarded as a university entry exam as well (I messed up the A level in that subject, and got a B, my merit did not make up for it and I didn't get a place). Seemed to be more of an extension paper really.

FrancisCrawford Tue 25-Apr-17 06:00:00

In Scotland, in 1984 (o'grades) 70%+ plus was an A. You could get a sub-band of 1 by getting over 90%, but the certificate only listed the A.

No, Scotland marked on a bell curve in the 80s. The passmark was not set at 50.

There was banding within the A grade, so not just A band 1.

HPFA Tue 25-Apr-17 06:33:35

The examiner's report on the History Paper of 1984 - the difference in attitude between now and then is extremely striking - and I love the fact that some students (and remember these were supposed to be the brightest) appeared to think that Japan was part of Germany.

Peregrina Tue 25-Apr-17 08:22:46

I took O levels in 1967. The maths paper included calculus, it was easy enough to answer questions which said 'differentiate .... so dy/dx .... and turn the handle and churn out answers, but I for one didn't have a clue as to the reason for it.

Another girl in class had asked whether a particular question could be solved with calculus, and the answer was yes, but it was usually done a different way. I remember thinking that this meant that she understood it, and I knew that I didn't.

Despite that, I passed Maths O level with a respectable enough grade.

Badbadbunny Tue 25-Apr-17 09:43:54

* For example, this is an 11+ paper from 1932 - look at what the brightest kids would have been doing in primary school: *

Is it really so different to today's 11+ maths paper? If you converted the units into metric measurements, those questions look remarkably similar to the 11+ my son did a few years ago.

I remember similar questions that my son did, such as working out distance having been given speed and time. Also, working out how much of something like wrapping paper or string was left over after wrapping x number of parcels whose dimensions were y.

Yes, the imperial measurements are more complicated, but there'd be fine if you learned them and had practice in working with them - Imperial wasn't that difficult to work with if you knew your times tables up to 12 - with weights were you were working to 14 or 16, then you'd just halve and then work with the 7 or 8 times table. My son did similar questions with metric measurements.

But I do know a retired maths teacher who does 11+ tuition and says that today's 11+ questions are a similar standard to foundation level GCSE maths.

TawnyPippit Tue 25-Apr-17 09:52:21

I agree what people say about grades being nowhere near as high with O levels, partly because they were genuinely designed to test to fail, and because of the comparative marking system.

I did them in 1980, have 10 - a mixture of an A, mostly B's and some C's. I went on to Oxford (and not even to study the subject I got an A at O level in). Even when I got there, there were some people with a full set of A's at O level, but honestly not that many. My DH, who was a contemporary of mine and went to one of those London day schools talked about in very aspirational tones on the 11+ threads (smile) I think has 2 or 3 As out of 9ish.

I also fully agree that it was a system that rewarded those with a good short term memory, and that an actual understanding of the subject was not strictly necessary (hello Chemistry O level!)

TeenAndTween Tue 25-Apr-17 09:58:15

I think much more critical thinking is needed now for History / Geography / RE compared with the 80s. More emphasis on bias / advantages and disadvantages etc rather than purely regurgitating facts.

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