Exams system faces its Waterloo

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Is England's exams system breaking up?

For nearly 20 years pupils wanting an academic education virtually all sat GCSEs and A-levels, But, now, their dominance is under threat.

At least that was how it seemed at Wellington college this week, as teachers -mainly from the independent sector and heartily fed up with mainstream qualifications - gathered to debate alternatives.

And there were no shortage of options, as speakers representing, in order, the new Cambridge Pre-U to be launched in 2008, the international baccalaureate, International GCSEs and the new specialised diplomas, set out their stalls.

The catalyst was Anthony Seldon, Wellington's new head. Dr Seldon said that the Government needed to "get a grip" on testing in England, where pupils were the most examined in the world. He said: "Teachers have to have confidence in the current system, and who is happy with the current system?"

Exams were failing their three main purposes: to stimulate good teaching, to check how much students know and to help universities and employers choose candidates. Dr Seldon wants a Royal Commission to investigate.

There was no dissent from the audience. But if there was widespread concern about GCSEs and A-levels, the question was what should replace them.

In a hall which also serves as a memorial to Wellington - the cape he wore at Waterloo hangs in a cabinet on the wall - a more modern battle was beginning. Exam boards are skirmishing for a share of the "had enough of (curriculum 2000) A-levels" market.

The Cambridge Pre-U looks like a return to traditional A-levels. It is a non-modular course in which students take all their exams, in three main subjects, at the end of Year 13. Thirty-two schools are piloting it, and 90 universities are interested.

Ann Puntis, from the board which is developing it, said that the A-level had become "uncoupled" from its original purpose, of preparing students for university. She also presented figures attacking the international baccalaureate, saying that most admissions tutors were not interested in breadth of sixth-form study, while most schools respected students' right to choose which subjects to drop post-16.

George Walker, director general emeritus of the IB, now taken in 90 English schools, said: "The notion that continuing to study one's mother tongue, and the literature associated with that, should be seen as restrictive and as an educational punishment, I find bizarre."

Mr Walker rejoiced in an announcement which gives the IB the same number of university entrance points as six A-levels, with a top grade in an IB subject awarded more points than an A grade A-level.

"I think it will be pretty clear where the gold standard lies," he boasted.

Intense competition is now developing over university entrance tests, designed to address that other alleged failing of A-levels: too many A grades.

Across the cloisters, Tessa Stone of the Sutton Trust, which has been piloting a version of the American Sat test, was pressing her case. None of the alternatives were there to hit back.

Jon Coles, director of the Department for Education and Skills' 14-19 reform group, pointed out that almost all academic teenagers take A-levels.

But Sir Mike Tomlinson has been among those warning that mainstream exams could suffer a collapse of confidence if private schools opt en masse to desert them.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

OPINION 23

FErret, FE Focus 2

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