The GCSE - has it failed to make the grade?

Fran Abrams looks at the state of the exam for 16-year-olds, on the day the results arrive. Has it raised standards? What do the grades mean for students and employers? And is it time for a change?
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GCSE: THE INTERVIEW. We put the controversial exam under examination.

Q. Who were your parents, and what did they do?

A: Well, they were O-level, which was a school-leaving exam for people who weren't leaving school, and CSE, which was a school-leaving exam for people who couldn't pass O-level.

Q. Are you different from your forebears? A. Oh yes, quite different. O-levels and CSEs involved a lot of rote- learning of facts, judged by

a final exam. But I am more concerned with how well candidates can analyse things, and up to 60 per cent of my marks can be awarded for coursework, depending on the subject.

Q. Why were you introduced?

A. I think it was mainly to help the weaker candidates. Employers didn't rate CSE very highly, and even that was only taken by average students. The below average ones often left school without any qualifications at all. So it was felt that an exam for everyone, with a wide range of pass marks from A to G, would help.

Q. And did it?

A. Well, sort of. I'm better for pupils whose teachers have underrated them and might not have put them in for O-level. But most people still think of anything below a C - the old O-level pass mark - as a fail, and one student in five still leaves school without even a G grade in English or maths.

Q. Have you raised standards generally?

A. I like to think so. In 1988, when I was introduced, 45 per cent of candidates in English, maths and science got a C or above. In 1995, more than half did so.

Q. But doesn't that mean standards are slipping?

A. The traditionalists who want to bring back

O-level say that, but I am one of the most highly regulated exams ever. A code of practice was introduced in 1993 to ensure quality and consistency, and more new rules were brought in last year. There have been endless inquiries, most of which haven't proved a thing either way.

Q. Perhaps people knew where they were with

O-level and CSE?

A. That's certainly true. Up until the early Eighties, the percentages getting each grade used to be fixed in advance, so that no matter how much better educated people were, the results wouldn't show it.

Q. What does the future hold for you?

A. I'm not really sure at the moment. The thing is, six out of 10 people stay in full-time education after 16 now, so they don't really need GCSEs for anything, because they're studying for higher qualifications. Then another two students out of 10 go into jobs with part-time training. I suppose they can use their GCSEs in English and maths, if they have them, to prove that they are literate and numerate. But then the rest end up being unemployed or go into unskilled jobs, and most of those people are the ones who don't even have GCSEs.

Q. So, should you be replaced? Perhaps with tests in English, maths and science similar to the ones pupils take at 14?

A. Well, it would save a lot of wasted effort and stress. Perhaps pupils could spend their time actually learning something, instead of swotting

for exams or trying to produce beautifully neat coursework, which some parents help with and others don't know how to. And as for me, well,

it's probably my only chance of gaining a bit of respect from the traditionalists. Just imagine it.

Sir Rhodes Boyson on the Today programme complaining that the new tests aren't as rigorous as GCSE used to be ...