The Conservative proposals to do away with GCSEs and re-introduce, in some form, a two tier O-Level / CSE-like system has understandably created controversy and distress among many critics and supporters of the coalition alike.

Once again teachers and teenagers find themselves subject to the idea that teaching standards are lower and exams easier than they used to be, and are understandably defensive about this. It can’t be nice to be in the middle of working on your exams and find the Secretary of State for Education essentially rubbishing your efforts and any results you might achieve.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, rightly said that “Michael Gove’s continual criticism of GCSEs as a ‘dumbed down’ examination is not only incorrect but also very offensive to those pupils and teachers who achieve great results every year. Getting rid of GCSEs and replacing them with the old O-Level and CSE qualifications could easily lower aspirations and exacerbate inequalities in society.

“The teaching profession must be properly consulted on such a crucial change in the examination system. Teachers are not mere ‘deliverers’ of knowledge but are there to inspire and motivate their students with a curriculum that is for everyone and not just for the few.”

Looking back at the previous system that GCSEs replaced Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, told Channel Four News that “What you had before 1988 was a system where O-levels were meant for the top 20 per cent [of pupils], and then in the mid-1960s CSEs were introduced, which were meant for the next 40 per cent, so covering 60 per cent of the population.

“The school-leaving age was raised to 16 and you had a lot of people talking about the inherent unfairness of having these two separate qualifications, (in) which ostensibly the lower end of one (CSE grade 1) was equivalent to a C grade at O-level. But nobody believed that – including employers.”

Michael Rosen, the well known children’s author and poet blogged that the proposals may mean “even more segregation, an even more rigid way of building selection into education. Michael Gove knows that he cannot universally re-introduce the 11-plus exam… So he brings it in by the back door. Any school admitting students who might not succeed in sitting a difficult O-level exam, would have to start streaming the students by 12 years old at the latest. In effect, this would re-introduce the 11-plus type exam – and its effects – within schools. And this wouldn’t just be the ‘setting’ that occurs now. It would create what would be in effect two schools under the same roof.”

However, no matter how unfairly, the current system certainly has a PR problem with the public, employers and in both Further and Higher Education. That public debate, in a nation generally dubious about decades of targets and figures, undermines all debates about education standards as many just don’t believe the numbers.

It may be worth asking the more fundamental questions though; what are the tests for and why have them at 16 at all?

With a small minority of pupils leaving school at 16 and as it becomes increasingly likely that school leaving age will be increased to 18 what is the role of either GCSEs or O levels in that situation rather than, say, a European style matriculation that simply allows continued education or indeed no nationally regulated tests at 16 at all? Teachers could move away from the routine of exam technique and get on with the business of educating.

Our kids have never been so tested, nor so taught to the test, but teachers have consistently opposed the introduction of more and more testing. Is this an opportunity to argue for less tests? Maybe it’s time simply to do away with GCSEs altogether and increase school leaving age to 18 with a decent range of academic and vocational qualifications available at that age.

Gove’s proposals would be a step back in time, entrenching the two tier education system that exists already, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a conversation about what kind of school system we want and whether exams at 16 are something that belong to the past.