Interviewed in the TES in the middle of last month, Frances O'Grady of the TUC was right to argue that the divide between maintained and public schools is socially damaging.
And things are set to get worse. Exam reform, perversely, threatens to end one of the few areas where there is a level playing field.
The current exams at the end of Year 11 have long been divided into two systems: the International GCSE (IGCSE) running alongside the mainstream GCSE, mainly for international schools who wished to retain O-level-style qualifications. In recent years, the IGCSE has become increasingly popular for domestic private schools, creating the illusion that O-level was still available – but only for the private sector.
Whether the IGCSE is in fact an O-level-style exam and therefore harder than GCSE has never been objectively established, but the fact is that private schools have been moving in numbers to take it. Indeed, critics of private schools claim the IGCSE is in fact easier than GCSE, but there is no solid evidence either way.
With rival claims and two parallel systems, it was therefore welcome when Michael Gove changed the rules on performance tables and exam entry to allow state schools to take the IGCSE. This was at least a level playing field: performance tables reported both, and there was no significant difference detected.
This came to an abrupt halt when the current government removed IGCSE from performance tables (though its approval for state schools and, thus, funding does not seem to have been affected). The argument was that IGCSEs were not being reformed in the style of mainstream GCSEs and therefore should not count. As a result, in January of this year, schools like Westminster fell to the bottom of the performance tables, having continued to do IGCSE and therefore having no successes to report. But they can continue to take the exams because league tables are not a major worry.
But when schools minister Nick Gibb made the announcement he created a major obstacle for state schools to do them.
This is a decision that deserves more scrutiny than it has received, but the key immediate point is that a divided system is in prospect, with IGCSE for the private sector and GCSE for state schools.
It is claimed that the new GCSE is harder than the IGCSE, but this claim too needs close examination. Exams regulator Ofqual have always refused to do trialing or piloting of new exams, or comparative studies of the two systems.
The argument becomes more bizarre as Ofqual is now seeking a National Reference Test, which is supposed to provide highly accurate evidence for benchmarking the exams system.
Like the league tables for GCSEs, private schools will be allowed to avoid the NRT. It is impossible to see legislation forcing the private schools to do a test for an examination they do not do.
The net effect of these changes is likely to be a two tier system, with GCSEs largely confined to the state sector. The media can be expected to see this in terms of a superior public school system and an inferior state system, whatever the government says.
The importance of IGCSE has largely flown under the radar, as has its popularity in the private sector. After the Gove reforms allowed state schools to take the exam, it did not much matter what exam system was adopted by teachers. Performance tables did not discriminate. But this situation is likely to end as government changes come in to force.
The solution? As a first step, it is vitally important to restore the full rights of state schools to take IGCSE, and end discrimination of the basis of performance tables. After that, a serious examination of the merits of both systems should be undertaken.
Alas, as things stand, English schools could face educational apartheid with two separate exams system developing at 16.
We are risking English schools splitting into two separate exam paths, with massive implications for social mobility and educational decision-making; we are looking at an educational apartheid.
Trevor Fisher is a historian, lecturer and writer on educational issues