Public exams privately undermined

13th March 2009 at 00:00

First we have GCSE grades dismissed as little better than handing out scout badges, then the news that some prestigious independent schools would refuse to submit pupils' GCSE and A-level results to the Independent Schools Council for publication in annual exam league tables as they do not give a true picture of academic achievement. Now we learn that Wellington College intends to ballot parents about a possible switch to the baccalaureate after ditching "boring" GCSEs.

These are all steps in the gradual undermining of our public exam system by some influential independent schools.

I agree with Pat Langham, head of Wakefield Girls' School, who believes independent schools should stick to GCSEs and A-levels and work to change the system from within. She is right to say that "if the GCSE is not good enough for the independent sector, then it's not good enough for state-school pupils either".

As a GCSE examiner, I see a range of excellent work from independents, full of flair and enthusiasm, scarcely suggesting that the pupils are bored. Similarly, why should it follow that GCSEs that are arranged in modules and require coursework allow no scope for "thinking, creativity or independent learning"?

In my teaching days, coursework was a challenge to me to devise tasks that encouraged those very qualities. I would like to see independent schools throwing their full weight behind the new English specifications from 2010, with a balance of external and controlled assessment, a genuine attempt to improve GCSEs.

The introduction of GCSEs led to considerable cross-fertilisation between state and independent sectors, something that needs to continue, but it will not do so if independent schools continue to lose faith in that system.

Our public exams need candidates of high ability and many of these are in the independent sector, something I am increasingly aware of as a GCSE examiner. It would be a great shame if there were wholesale opting out of public exams by such candidates. Together with similarly able state school candidates, they could restore confidence in a reformed exam system. We can and must heal the rift.

Peter King, Retired English teacher; GCSE examiner, Cambridgeshire.

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