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Ministry to tighten GCSE marking

Linda Blackburne on measures to improve consistency among exam groups. Government plans to tighten GCSE marking rules have sparked a new debate about merging the four English exam groups into a single body.

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard last week welcomed proposals from her chief curriculum adviser Sir Ron Dearing to strengthen awarding procedures for the exam, now six years old.

And the Department for Education announced four new measures to tighten and clarify existing arrangements underpinning consistency of grading across GCSE examining groups.

But Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said improving communications between groups would not eradicate inconsistencies. "Now that we have a national curriculum it is time for a national examining board," he said. "A national board could easily accommodate the variety of emphasis that the current system provides." However, Mr Foster's proposal is unlikely to please exam officials who believe a single board would reduce choice and limit the number of syllabuses and exams.

Sir Ron, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is in favour of reducing the number of syllabuses, but makes no mention of a single board in a letter to Mrs Shephard on the new measures.

Referring to a previous proposal to limit the number of syllabuses and exams, he said: "There is a number of ways in which co-ordination could be explored afresh: examining groups could work together over the development of a small range of syllabuses; they could share papers on these syllabuses; they could determine grade boundaries collaboratively . . . Experience this year has shown that a more co-ordinated approach would be in the interest of pupils, parents and schools."

SCAA will discuss this approach with the examining groups and submit full proposals in December. In the meantime, the four new measures will: * ensure that the rules for determining grades are clear, consistent and robust; * improve communications be-tween examining groups; * produce national sets of candidates' work to help define grade standards in key subjects; * introduce piloting of any major changes to awarding schemes; Mrs Shephard told SCAA to investigate awarding procedures last September after provisional results for GCSE mathematics and combined science by London Examinations and the Southern Examining Group showed "significant increases" in grade Bs this year compared to 1993.

The other exam groups - Midland, Northern and Wales - only showed "small increases", according to the DFE.

Commenting on Sir Ron's proposal for a small range of syllabuses, George Turnbull, director of public relations for the Southern Examining Group, said exam boards were already cutting down on courses to save money: there was no danger of boards offering syllabuses for the sake of it.

Margaret Hutchinson, an assistant chief executive with the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, agreed but said there could be some room for rationalisation. She also said a single exam board would be bureaucratic and unwieldy.

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