Students forgiven for bad Herr day

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Students who get confused about the German words for Mr and Mrs will still be eligible for the top A* grade in this year's German GCSE exam. Examiners for the OCR board have been instructed not to penalise candidates who believe that Herr denotes a woman.

Twenty two thousand students heard a tape recorded story featuring the exploits of one Herr Jäger, a bossy teacher, and his pupils as part of last month's 40-minute "listening" exercise. Then they answered written papers to demonstrate how much they had understood ­ pronouns not included.

"Tolerate 'she' and tolerate 'her' for Herr Jäger," says a copy of the OCR mark scheme obtained by The Independent on Sunday. Candidates were also free to describe a fictional student, Marco, as 'she' without fear of being marked down.

The mark scheme has been criticised by angry examiners who claim that the reluctance to penalise such basic errors is evidence that exam boards are making GCSEs easier, in order to drum up fresh business.

"There's tremendous pressure on the boards to make sure they don't appear more difficult than their rivals," said the senior examiner who leaked the paper. "It's got much worse in the last 10 years as schools have been pushed to increase the number of pupils with top grades. Now they say, 'one set of bad results, and we're off to another board'. That's the market at work."

Professor Alan Smithers from Liverpool University believes there is a danger of the exam boards undercutting each other. "The boards are businesses, therefore they have to maximise the number of customers. And one of the things that makes exam boards attractive is high pass rates," he said.

A spokesman for the OCR board defended the GCSE German paper, saying that detail about the characters' gender had not been part of the exercise. "The exam is about understanding the passage and they were expected to answer in note form," he said. "You can't penalise them for adding additional words to the basic answer, even if they have used the wrong pronoun."

The Joint Council for Vocational Qualifications, the umbrella group for exam boards, vigorously denied that the market place was undermining standards, pointing out that that the boards are under constant review by the exams regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.