State schools consider return to 'O-levels'

A new rival to the GCSE exam designed along the lines of the traditional O-level may soon win backing from exam watchdogs and be taken up by hundreds of state schools.

Ofqual, the agency set up by the Government to regulate and accredit examinations, is studying plans for a new Cambridge International Certificate (CIC) which could be offered to high-performing pupils as an alternative to GCSEs. Pupils could start studying for the CIC, which would reduce coursework content and rely more heavily on end-of-course examinations, from September 2009, it was predicted yesterday.

Figures indicate that about 250 of the top fee-paying schools have dropped the GCSE. Martin Stephen, headmaster of St Paul's in London and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents elite private schools including Eton and Winchester, has described the exam as "in crisis". Private schools have opted for the International GCSE – designed by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), which is linked to the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Art exam board – for use overseas in countries wanting to retain an old-style O-level exam. But it cannot be used in state schools as it does not have national accreditation so ministers will not fund its use by any institution in the state sector.

Privately, CIE officials have been told they will never be given the green light for the International GCSE to be used in state schools, because it does not meet the published GCSE criteria to be based on the requirements of the national curriculum. However, the CIE was told that if it came up with another name which distinguished it from the GCSE, it could obtain accreditation, leading to ministers funding its use in the state sector. CIE said it had submitted "several syllabuses" to Ofqual.

A spokeswoman for Ofqual said that it would take at least two months for it to consider whether to approve the examination. If it did, ministers would then decide if state schools that wanted to use it would receive government funding.