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Enter at your own risk

Much has been written about the narrowing down of GCSE English studies, especially of literature, but virtually nothing has been heard on exam tiering and how this is likely to affect patterns of entry. The matter is serious since it carries the possibility of candidates ending up ungraded if wrong decisions are made.

Reading the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's Tiering in GCSE Examinations: A guide for teachers, has brought it home to me.

At the start it says: "From 1998, most large-entry GCSE subjects will be examined through a foundation tier covering grades G to C and a higher tier covering grades D to A*."

It recognises that this has implications for paper setting, with questions in higher tier papers likely to be "of a more open-ended nature" whereas those for the foundation tier "will be more structured", but it is possibly somewhat glib about the impact of tiering on teaching: "Setting is already widely used in many examination subjects, but most syllabuses are compatible with other approaches." With the current stress on league tables, I suspect the impact will be considerably more drastic: another nail in the coffin of mixed-ability.

Of course, tiering is a feature of many current GCSE English schemes and most Midland Examining Group centres have entered the majority of their candidates for the higher tier, in the knowledge that A*-F embraces such a range of ability that there is virtually no danger of falling off the bottom.

Everyone seems to be catered for at present - but will it be so with the new arrangements? SCAA is very clear in its advice: "Pupils likely to achieve a grade in the range G to D should be entered for the foundation tier and those expected to achieve a grade in the range C to A* should be entered for the higher tier."

That advice is based on a firm belief in the teachers' knowledge of their pupils. It all seems eminently sensible until, at the bottom of the same page, one reads: "A pupil who does not achieve the minimum grade for a tier of entry will be ungraded."

In other words, some candidates will fail although their achievement will be superior to many who are graded, albeit for the foundation GCSE. That seems contrary to natural justice.

In English, things are not always clear-cut and teachers will be uncomfortably aware of parental pressures when making entry decisions. Memories of GCE and CSE divisions, with associated questions of prestige and motivation, are likely to recur.

Peter King is a retired English teacher and MEG English examiner.

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