'We do not know whether standards have risen or fallen,' the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority said, 'but we need to see whether there has been any year-on-year change.'
Exam results for English, the most popular GCSE subject among students, and the one most required by employers, are not published for another month. But speculation has already begun on whether there has been a dramatic change in standards because, on government insistence, the exam has itself changed.
John Patten, until recently Secretary of State for Education, ordered a change in the exam because in some cases it had become almost 100 per cent coursework. This year there were more formal written examinations, and more attention was given to spelling and grammar.
Some examiners are saying privately that a return to written exams has exposed poor English which will require an 'adjustment' of marks to avoid an apparent big drop in standards. Others are saying that 16-year-olds are showing they can improve on their predecessors' performance.
The National Association of Teachers of English said a survey of schools showed a drop in the quality of childrens' work under the pressure of preparation for written exams and predicted a drop in passes at grade A to C, seen as equivalent the old O-level.
But Kathleen Tattersall, of the Northern Examination and Assessment Board, said a meeting of examiners last week indicated that, if anything, standards will have been shown to have risen when the results are published.