Leading article: We need one exam system for all

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The Independent Online

Andrew Boggis, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), warned this week about the danger of independent schools breaking away from the traditional GCSE and A-level exams because they do not believe they are challenging enough for their pupils. Boggis, headmaster of Forest School in east London, believes that there should be a single national system of exams that all schools support - not a separate system of elite exams taken by private schools.

Dozens of independent schools have abandoned GCSE exams for international GCSEs because of concerns that GCSEs do not stretch the brightest and rely too much on coursework. Others are considering dropping A-levels in favour the International Baccalaureate, which is regarded by many as offering a broader and more challenging curriculum. A new challenge to the traditional A-level - The Cambridge Pre-U - which is supported by top independent schools - will also be on offer from 2008. It has been developed by the private school sector because of fears that A-levels no longer provide a rigorous method of selecting pupils for university. Teachers from Eton, Winchester, Westminster and other leading private schools have produced a traditional exam that will require pupils to give oral presentations or vivas, write extended essays and solve long problems in maths and sciences.

Many educationalists believe that the drive to create new exams and to switch to other qualifications is a reaction to the Government's rejection of the 2004 Tomlinson report, that would have replaced A-levels and GCSEs with an overarching diploma and had the backing of both state and private schools. Mr Boggis is right to be concerned. There are real dangers that the exam system will become irreparably fragmented. However, no one can stop private schools from scrapping GCSEs and A-levels if they choose to. The only solution is to reform the current exams to win back the confidence of the schools.

This week's announcement by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, to stop GCSE cheats by clamping down on coursework is a step in the right direction. The exams have been tarnished by claims that some pupils rip their coursework off the internet. The Government should stop talking about making A-levels harder and act quickly to reform the whole system.