GCSE science 'dumbed down', says exam watchdog

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The Independent Online

Standards in GCSE science exams have been "dumbed down", the Government's own exams watchdog warns today.

In the most damning indictment ever delivered on the exam by a public body, Ofqual – the new exams regulatory body – says the standards of the examination give "serious cause for concern".

Its verdict will be seen as a vindication of more than 200 independent schools that have ditched the exam in favour of the International GCSE – modelled along old O-level lines – because they believe the GCSE, particularly in science, is not providing a challenge for pupils.

Embarrassingly for Schools Secretary Ed Balls, Ofqual's verdict comes just a fortnight after he tried to dismiss the independent schools' move as a "marketing strategy" to convince parents they were offering tougher exams at a time when the recession meant they were struggling to attract students. Ofqual's concern is over a new GCSE syllabus introduced in 2006 with students awarded grades for the first time last summer.

Schools minister Jim Knight acknowledged last night the findings could dent public confidence in the exam. In its report, Ofqual says its main concern is over the quality of assessment – adding that the exam does not challenge the brightest pupils enough, and that it is now easier to get an A or C grade. It says it is concerned the question types used provided insufficient opportunity for more able candidates to demonstrate the extent of their scientific knowledge, understanding and skills.

Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing 250 of the most elite private schools including Eton and Harrow, said: "Anyone asking why so many independent schools are switching to the IGCSE – particularly in science – need only read this latest Ofqual report."

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