Pupils ready for GCSEs at 11, says exam chief

Pupils should be allowed to sit GCSEs and A-levels when they are ready rather than at the "right" age, the head of one of the country's biggest exam boards has said.

Dr Ron McLone, chief executive of the (Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art) exam board, said the brightest students could start sixth-form early. He added that it could also stop the logjam during the summer when about 30 million exam scripts are moving around the country - running the risk of papers getting lost.

Dr McLone's comments come as top independent school headteachers prepare to debate exam reform at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' annual conference starting today in Dublin.

In an interview with The Independent, he said: "I don't like age limited assessment. I don't see why [pupils] should all take GCSEs at 16 and A-levels at 18. Students do not develop at the same rate.

Urging progression for schools he said that some were already starting their 11 to 16-year-olds on AS-level work in conjunction with colleges.

It would mean "major institutional change" he said adding: "It won't be easy or quick but it should be done."

The shake-up would coincide with a move towards online assessment - removing the need to rely on the postal system.

"If you look at the way exams are taken, it has moved very little since the University of Cambridge Examinations Syndicate was set up in 1858," he said. He used the Cambridge English for Speakers (ESOL) of Other Languages as an example of the future. The test, satin around 150 countries is taken online.

If students get a correct answer, they move to a higher level until their ability is assessed. If they answer incorrectly, they get a lower level question. Dr McLone's proposals are in line with the Government's "personalised learning plans", under pupils takingan academic or vocational route (or both) from the age of 14.

The plan to stop age-related exams was welcomed by Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.

"There are some children who - if they had been allowed to take their GCSEs a year later - would have got higher grades."

Dr McLone warned against adopting the International Baccalaureate (IB) in the UK as suggested by the former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson saying that it might be too "prescriptive".

He did, however, feel that the Welsh baccalaureate being piloted this term "has got quite a bit going for it".

Independent school heads are expected to back a six-point A-level grading system at conference. The aim is to help universities accurately select the most talented youngsters.