The report, published yesterday, concludes that there 'could have been a gradual erosion of standards' since the introduction of the new-style examination four years ago. Grades were awarded in a 'highly subjective' way and it was hard to judge whether standards were being maintained from year to year, the inspectors say.
The announcement by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, came as a bombshell for the four examining groups. Ministers have repeatedly praised the success of the GCSE as the proportion of candidates achieving C grades and above - the approximate equivalent of the old O-level - rose from under 40 per cent in 1988 to 51 per cent this summer.
Teachers' leaders reacted angrily. Peter Smith, general secretary of the of Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, said: 'There is a nasty political whiff about the way it has been handled, particularly the timing of Mr Patten's statement two days ago. He seems to be cynically turning a complex issue which is not totally new into little more than a pre-party political conference stand.'
The School Examinations and Assessment Council, which oversees the examining process, was also caught unawares. None of its annual scrutiny reports has made fundamental criticisms. The HM Inspectorate had previously said that marking and procedures in the 1991 exams were unchanged and that examiners had made every effort to ensure that standards were maintained.
Mr Patten has demanded responses from the council and the examining bodies which at present compete for business from schools. If the examining groups could not satisfy him that they could tighten up their procedures, they could be replaced by a single, national agency, as in Scotland.
The other option, more likely to appeal to the Tory right, would be to inject added competition from new examining bodies. Mr Patten's action has delighted right- wing critics but appalled many teachers, who believe that the new courses, which stress problem-solving rather than memorising, are popular with employers.
This is one of the last reports from the HM Inspectorate, which is being downgraded to a small body licensing private inspection teams. It states: 'HMI have limited confidence that standards are being maintained; confidence would be more secure if the criteria for awarding were more objective and the procedures used across groups were more consistently rigorous.
'The absence of criteria to define minimum standards for grades remains a major weakness. It is therefore difficult to judge whether appropriate standards are being applied and maintained from year to year.'
The report urged examining bodies to take firmer action against the small minority of schools where setting and marking coursework by teachers was unacceptably poor.
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