Education: Heads predict death of GCSE exams

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Heads of 240 top public schools called for the end of the GCSE exam at 16. Judith Judd, Education Editor, listened to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' conference in Brighton. The GCSE exam will wither on the vine, Michael Mavor, head of Rugby School and new chairman of the conference, said. He predicted that the exam would disappear within five years as the Government's plans for everyone to stay on at school until the age of 18 were fulfilled and more pupils were awarded five top grades at GCSE.

Dr John Moore, head of King's School, Worcester, and chairman of the conference's academic policy committee, said: "I can't see why we should go on indefinitely with a major hurdle at 16 coinciding with the school leaving age and sending out the wrong signals, which I think no other country in the European Union finds it necessary to send out." There should, he added, be some sort of certificate at 16 but we should start trusting teachers to assess their pupils.

Mr Mavor also said that he thought the present A-level system should be replaced by a Continental-style exam for which pupils would study five subjects over two years.

Ministers will announce aconsultation on the future of A-level and vocational A-levels on Thursday. Under proposals accepted by the last government, sixth-formers could study five subjects for a year before deciding to specialise in two or three in the second year.

Mr Mavor said his belief that A-level should be replaced was a personal one. Heads at the conference are divided on the issue. He told the conference in his chairman's address: "We have a startling opportunity to create a sensible breadth and we should take it."

Dr Moore said there should be a tapering away of the number of subjects taken by pupils as they got older. At present they were taking twelve or thirteen subjects at the age of 13, nine or ten for GCSE and suddenly three for A-level. "It is a nasty shock to the system and I find more people are making the wrong choices at A-level."

Mr Mavor praised the Government's educational reforms and welcomed its plans for partnership with independent schools, which include sharing facilities and resources with state schools. Independent schools are also putting forward proposals to educate state school pupils studying minority subjects such as Latin and Russian in their sixth forms.

But Mr Mavor warned ministers that independent schools would not ask fee-paying parents to contribute to large subsidies to community activities and state school pupils. Independent school parents, he pointed out, had already paid once for education through their taxes.

Stephen Byers, the Schools Minister, said he was encouraged that independent schools had responded positively to the Government's approach. He would be giving examples next month of ways in which independent schools could work with state schools.