In the August surroundings of a splendid 18th-century pile, senior teachers from some of England's best-known independent schools were gathered for one of their periodic get-togethers. Many of the directors of studies were regulars at these events, where discussion would normally range widely across academic areas of interest, curriculum issues, syllabuses and the like.
But there was something different about this meeting of the Eton Group of 12 leading schools. There was only one main item on the agenda: the best alternative to GCSEs.
It started as a trickle, and it's still barely more than that, but the move away from the GCSE is starting to make waves. Earlier this year it was the turn of Manchester Grammar School to announce it was replacing GCSEs in everything but art. A few weeks later, Wellington College in Berkshire revealed it would also be offering pupils an alternative.
It's now 21 years since the first pupils completed their GCSE courses. Coming of age is usually an occasion for celebration, but just when it should be in the prime of life, the GCSE has never been in worse health. Claims that it does not stretch the most able pupils seem to have been given added force by concerns that reforms coming in this year will weaken it further still. To add to its woes, the push to create an over-arching framework for 14 to 19-year-olds, and encourage young people to stay in education or training until 17, has cast doubt on whether we need an exam at 16.
So far the retreat from the GCSE has been confined to private schools. When one state school, Bexley Grammar in Kent, announced last year that it planned to offer the International GCSE, an alternative that focuses on final exams rather than coursework or modules, it was barred from doing so. Even though Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, has since approved IGCSEs in 15 subjects, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has not agreed to fund it, so it cannot yet be offered in state schools.
Rod MacKinnon, the former head of Bexley Grammar who moved to the fee- paying Bristol Grammar School last summer, says his issue is not with the GCSE as such, but he feels it may not suit some pupils in some subjects. At Bexley, Mr MacKinnon tried to introduce IGCSE science on the grounds that the GCSE equivalent did not stretch the most able children. "It is a reputable examination, but my view was that in Bexley's context, the IGCSE was more appropriate for some pupils."
Bristol Grammar, his new school, offers the IGCSE in maths, on the basis that it provides a more challenging syllabus. The IGCSE includes calculus, for example, which pupils do not have to study for the GCSE. The school is considering offering the IGCSE in English.
The GCSE was introduced to fuse together its predecessors, O-level and CSE, into one course designed to suit children of all abilities. But Mr MacKinnon suggests it is time to accept the one-size-fits-all approach has not worked. "There are lots of really good arguments why we would want one exam for everybody, but in reality we're not able to stretch the full ability range."
He believes giving schools and pupils the choice of exams is a logical extension of personalised learning. If learning is to be tailored to each child's needs, then why make everyone sit the same exam? "There is nothing profoundly essential about having one exam," he says. "I can't see why it should be a problem having two or three different styles."
Much of the flight away from GCSEs has been towards the IGCSE. This year, almost half - 46 per cent - of private schools are offering at least one IGCSE, up from 34 per cent last year. Edexcel, one of two exam boards administering them, reports that the number of candidates taking the exam has almost doubled in two years, from 45,000 in 2006 to 85,000 last year. Cambridge Assessment, the other board offering IGCSEs, is coy about releasing figures, but will admit to a 20 per cent increase in entries this year.
There are other options for schools disgruntled with the GCSE. Wellington College announced last month that from September it would be offering the three-year middle years programme (MYP) of the international baccalaureate (IB) in Years 9-11. The IB has become an increasingly popular alternative to the A-level, and David James, director of IB at Wellington, says extending this approach to younger children was the logical next step.
Pupils at Wellington will have the choice of taking the MYP, as well as compulsory IGCSEs in maths and English, or taking IGCSEs across the board. The MYP is subject to continuous assessment and has no external exams, and the school expects most pupils to plump for that option.
Dr James argues that GCSEs are often boring to teach and not a good preparation for sixth form, and predicts disquiet with the exam may grow over changes scheduled to come in from September.
Ofqual has already raised concerns over GCSE science - a report last month warned that previous revisions had led to a fall in standards - and a new modular system will give pupils repeated opportunities to resit modules until they pass. "The new GCSE will be a great incentive for other schools to look at alternatives," Dr James says. "The prognosis is dire for GCSEs. We're seeing the beginning of the end of the consensus where everyone did them."
Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's, a boys' school in west London that offers IGCSEs in science, maths and music, concurs that GCSEs can be boring.
Dr Stephen says it was only with "extreme reluctance" that the school, one of those represented at the Eton Group meeting at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, in November, dropped GCSEs in those subjects, but a qualification that aimed to suit everyone has ended up suiting no one. The result, he suggests, is that the 14-16 system could go the same way as the 16-plus qualifications.
"The sector is splintering. We now have A-levels, IB, Pre-U and the new diplomas, and it's splitting the available energy, and we're heading the same way with the GCSE," he says. "There ought to be a single, national set of qualifications. It is a pretty sad comment on us as a nation if we can't decide what we want our children to know."
T he National Science Learning Centre is developing a course to look at the whole range of secondary-age qualifications. The course, which is expected to run at the centre in York for the first time next year, is being created in response to a growing interest among teachers in alternatives to GCSEs and A-levels, according to Miranda Stephenson, programme director.
But the GCSE is not without friends. Jane Lees, head of Hindley High School in Wigan and president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), believes it has stood the test of time, and defends it against accusations it is not demanding. The GCSE sets out only minimum requirements, she says, and good teachers will push the brightest pupils beyond those.
"There are very small numbers of independent schools who are saying this. The majority are quite happy with the GCSE," she says. But she does acknowledge that there could be scope to give schools a choice of examinations. "I probably wouldn't choose the IGCSE, because that's very much one exam at the end of two years, and many pupils don't particularly like that, but we should be able to look at alternatives if we want."
Paul, a maths teacher at a secondary school in east London, who asked for his surname to be withheld, says there are plenty of options in the existing GCSE to stretch the most able pupils. "It is rare that a course is dull and undemanding," he says. "It is the delivery that is the key and changing courses will not make a school's delivery any more interesting."
He believes the real problem is for pupils at the bottom end of the ability range. Trying to cover the whole ability range in one exam is a mistake, he says, when pupils know that an F or G grade is no use to them. Instead, he suggests maths should follow science in having a double award: a numeracy exam testing functional skills and a double award for those who are good at the subject or want to study it at higher level. "I can think of no valid reason why someone who is innumerate should be entered for the same qualification as someone who is going on to do maths at university."
Robert Coe, a leading researcher into exams and assessment, believes the GCSE is still appropriate for the majority of pupils. Dr Coe, director of the Curriculum Evaluation and Monitoring Centre at Durham University, says it is too early to write off the GCSE. "There are a few people who say it is not meeting their needs and they have to be listened to, but it doesn't mean the end of the GCSE."
But he says there is a case for giving schools and awarding bodies the freedom to create their own forms of assessment, overseen by a regulatory body to ensure they were broadly equivalent. "More diversity and more choice would be a healthy thing," he says.
After Manchester Grammar revealed it was moving to IGCSEs, John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, has suggested independent schools are using the qualification as a marketing tool, and accuses them of creating a two- tier system. But Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents leading independent schools, says it is those who prevent schools looking at alternatives who will be responsible for any schism. He says the sensible move would be for the Government to allow state schools to use IGCSEs and then let the market decide which it preferred.
Despite the high-profile abandonment of the GCSE by some schools, Mr Lucas says it remains as much a national qualification for the independent sector as it is for state schools. But he believes the next two or three years, as the changes to a modular system coming in this year have time to bed in, could be crucial in determining its fate. "Talk of its demise is premature. There is a move in certain subjects and it is a question of how far that trend will escalate."
B ut the question marks dangling over the future of the GCSE are not just about its intellectual rigour, or supposed lack of it. There's also the matter of whether 16-year-olds should be taking a national exam at all. The introduction of the 14-19 agenda was supposed to provide an overall pathway to keep young people in education or training. This ambition becomes a requirement for children now in Year 7 or below, who will have to stay in education or training until they are 17. Suddenly, the rationale for an exam whose raison d'etre was as a school leaving certificate is starting to look a little thin.
Donald Hirsch, an expert in international education comparisons, says the UK is almost alone in having two national examinations, at 16 and 18. The only others to follow suit are largely members of the Commonwealth that have adapted the UK system, but most developed countries either rely on school-based assessment, such as the US and Japan, or take a combination of subjects in a baccalaureate, usually with an exam at 18.
For 16-year-olds who now stay on in education and will go on to completely different courses, including A-levels, IB or diplomas, the GCSE has little relevance, says Mr Hirsch, an education consultant for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
"The GCSE is still run as if it was a leaving exam. The question isn't why should we get rid of it, it is why should we keep it? If we were designing our system from scratch, there would be no earthly reason to invent them."
Mr Dunford predicted in 2000 that the GCSEs would disappear as part of the move towards a post-14 qualification. Four years later, the Tomlinson Report did indeed propose replacing GCSEs - along with A-levels - with diplomas, as part of an overhaul of 14-19 education. The diplomas did come in, introduced into schools last September, but the Government rejected most of the report's other recommendations and GCSEs stayed. Some now see this as a missed opportunity.
Mr MacKinnon, at Bristol Grammar, says GCSEs have become an "elephant in the room", an unwelcome visitor nobody is willing to expel. "They were designed as a school leaving certificate, but we don't want them to be that anymore. It no longer makes sense for things to stay as they are."
He says there are also good financial reasons for removing one set of national examinations and replacing them with moderated school assessments. "I believe in exams, but we're spending too much money and time on external exams, and it just isn't necessary."
Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, says assessment at 16 is helpful as a way of discovering how much a pupil has learnt, but schools should be trusted to carry this out themselves, rather than relying on external exams. "If pupils are carrying on in education until 17, what is the point of doing GCSEs?"
Dr Seldon claims the GCSE has sucked the initiative and creativity out of teaching and should be replaced. "It is possibly the poorest exam the country has had," he adds.
But Mrs Lees is far from convinced that it is redundant. She believes it is important pupils have a nationally recognised qualification to show for five years of secondary education, and to have a measure by which schools can be held accountable. While the idea of an over-arching diploma is appealing, incorporating elements of GCSEs and vocational qualifications, she says until a satisfactory system is found, there is still a place for GCSEs.
Although all pupils will have to stay in education or training until 17, not all of them will be in schools or sixth form colleges. Some will go into training or apprenticeships, and for those young people a school leaving certificate could still make sense, she adds.
GCSEs are also a useful guide to ability for university tutors, adds Dr Coe, particularly when many believe A-levels are not sufficiently discriminating. "At the moment, GCSEs are doing some of the job that A- levels used to do and probably should be doing," he says. GCSEs also operate as a selection criteria for A-levels, but he says there has to be a balance between providing a useful marker and making education about the exams rather than the learning.
Dr Coe points out that GCSEs are also important politically, for the purposes of league tables and accountability. While league tables may not be popular among many teachers, as long as they are there, a national testing system is required.
"We're so focused on exams and tests, it's pretty hard to imagine anyone seriously arguing to get rid of them, but there is a case to be made," he says. "Many countries don't have exams as we know them at all, but they certainly don't have them twice. Maybe that is something we should contemplate."
Scrapping GCSEs would be almost unthinkably brave for any government, but it would also require a degree of trust in schools to carry out their own assessments, a trust that at the moment seems to be lacking. But if the 14-19 agenda is going to become a reality rather than an aspiration, maybe it's time to consider whether there is a place for the GCSE.