Head calls on schools to limit number of GCSEs

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The Independent Online

The head of one of the country's leading independent schools is calling on all schools to cut the number of GCSE exams taken by pupils.

Richard Cairns, headmaster of the £20,400-a-year Brighton College, claims exam league tables "are encouraging heads to enter pupils for exam after exam quite unnecessarily".

His call - on the day when 600,000 pupils are due to receive their GCSE results - comes after his own school took the decision to limit the number of exams entered by pupils to nine - down from 11. In addition, Oxford and Cambridge universities have told the college they believe there is no need for a student to do more than eight GCSEs. "What the universities are looking for is evidence of ability, intellect and academic ambition," he said. "Of course, they want a string of A*s but not so long a string that a child is denied the time and opportunity to develop intellectually."

Under the league tables, schools can be ranked on the average point score per pupil at GCSE. The greater the number of exams taken by the pupils the larger the point score will be.

Mr Cairns' call coincides with growing concerns over the extent of the exam burden facing UK pupils. MPs have claimed they are "the most tested in the Western world". It also comes as Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of theHouse of Commons Education Select Committee, said it would conduct an inquiry into testing in the autumn.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, expressed support for Mr Cairns. "It's not in the best interests of the children's education to put them in for too many exams," he said.

Mr Cairns said a reduction in the exam burden would allow schools to start "harnessing their [pupils'] intellectual energies". "We can only do that if there is time in the school day to do so," he said. "Schools are forcing children to dig up road after road when we should really be teaching them to design bridges."

As a result of the reduction in exams at Brighton College, he argued that "chemistry enthusiasts may choose to spend the extra time available in the laboratories with like-minded souls, exploring new ideas".

His warning about league tables was echoed by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Dr Richard Pike said pupils were being directed away from "difficult subjects" at A-level to improve schools' rankings. "The use of school league tables is damaging UK science because of the unintended consequence of treating education as a market commodity," he said.

Evidence also emerged yesterday of a rising trend in the number of incorrect exam grades awarded by GCSE examiners. Figures from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, showed that queries over grades rose by 25 per cent between 2003 and last year.As a result, 10,628 grades were changed last year, compared to 9,374 in 2003. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman, who unearthed the figures, said: "Too many students are having to battle bureaucracy to correct mistakes made by exam boards."

* Britain's armed services are included on a list of potential new sponsors to run state schools published yesterday by the schools minister, Jim Knight.

Mr Knight, who was writing on the Euston Manifesto website, argued they could be enlisted as sponsors of Tony Blair's flagship "trust" schools. He argued that the sponsorship base should be widened to include more parents' co-operatives and schools sponsored by trade unions, the armed forces or environmental groups.