John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, this week used a critical HM Inspectors' report on this summer's examination to launch a review of the examining bodies in England. His announcement stunned the four examining groups. The School Examinations and Assessment Council (Seac), which oversees them and has advised ministers regularly that standards have been maintained since the introduction of GCSE in 1988, was also caught unawares.
Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and chairman of the council, was reported to be furious. But John Marks, his right-wing colleague on the council, took the opportunity to call for the reintroduction of O-levels.
Dr Woodthorpe said the HMI report did not support the conclusion that 'the evidence could point to a gradual erosion of standards since the introduction of the GCSE', and produced only anecdotal evidence about poor marking and assessment procedures.
On candidates' grades, the inspectors complained that it was 'difficult to judge whether appropriate standards are being applied and maintained from year to year'. Dr Woodthorpe said it was unfortunate that this was interpreted as standards having been eroded. 'The report provides very flimsy evidence on which to base (Mr Patten's) press release and does not substantiate the claim that standards have been eroded,' he said. The criteria for grading applied by the examining groups were those laid down by the Government, through Seac, covering grades F and C, he said. It is open to the Government to lay down more extensive critiera.
He noted the inspectors' comments that most marking schemes were sufficiently rigorous and marking standards carefully monitored. On the marking of spelling, punctuation and grammar, worth 5 per cent this year, the groups had pointed out that there would be difficulties in interpretation when it was introduced.
An example out of hundreds of thousands of scripts where an inspector said one marked 77 was 'clearly better' than one scoring 88 had been singled out. 'Anecdotal evidence is being used to undermine the quality of work the students have provided and been rewarded for in this year's GCSE,' Mr Woodthorpe said.
Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, criticised Mr Patten for undermining GCSE by selective leaks from the report. 'This important report paints the picture of GCSE as an examination system which is like an engine which needs fine-tuning, not scrapping . . . The recommendations to the examining groups all argue for building on existing achievements and improving existing practice,' she said.