Brightest pupils are baffled by 'easy GCSEs'

Candidates look for hidden catch in questions, says private schools' leader
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The Independent Online

The new leader of Britain's top independent schools today warns that some GCSE exams have become so simplistic that they are confusing intelligent pupils.

Andrew Grant, who takes over this week as chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), says he has ditched English literature GCSEs at his school because they are too easy.

"The GCSE was too stultifying," said Mr Grant, whose organisation represents 250 of the country's élite boys-only schools. "I think that in an attempt to produce a 'one-size-fits-all' exam for all-comers they've produced an exam which doesn't allow creative children to express themselves.

"They have baffled pupils through the simplicity of the questions. They're actually looking for a more sophisticated question than the one they're being asked and wonder whether there is a hidden catch."

He is also worried about marking standards for the GCSE because so many markers needed to be recruited the quality was being diluted. "With the International GCSE there are a smaller number of scripts so they only need to recruit a small number of highly qualified markers," he said.

Mr Grant, who is head of St Albans School in Hertfordshire – a former direct grant school – said he had replaced the exam with the IGCSE. It has a more traditional basis with emphasis on end-of-year tests rather than coursework.

In his first interview since being appointed, he told The Independent that he was contemplating extending the number of IGCSEs the school was offering in place of GCSEs – and introducing the new Pre-U exam alongside A-levels. The Pre-U is another more traditional form of exam. He also accused Children's Secretary Ed Balls of adopting a "pretty impudent" attitude towards independent schools.

In recent remarks Mr Balls has claimed independent school heads were misleading parents over the GCSE. They were only introducing the IGCSE in its place as a marketing strategy, he said, to make it look as if they were offering a tougher exam when there was no evidence that this was the case.

He said the reverse was true, adding: "The national education system is being used as a PR device by the Government for their own ends. The Government wants it to serve its own agenda – and one aspect of that agenda could well be steadily improving examination results at all levels."

Independent school leaders said they had a good working relationship with the Government when Andrew Adonis was Schools Minister – but he was moved to transport in the last reshuffle amid speculation of a rift with Mr Balls. "With Andrew Adonis, we felt we had the same aims at heart – the good of the pupils," said Mr Grant.

He is well aware that one of the vital questions he will have to address over the next year is how independent schools prove they provide "public benefit" – to satisfy the new requirements for retaining their charitable status.

"One of the themes of my chairmanship will be to get home the message that the independent sector is an important part of the education service," he said.