Seen as one of the Conservatives' most successful educational reforms, encouraging greater numbers of young people to stay on at school, the new-style examination has been monitored approvingly by the Inspectorate and the School Examinations and Assessment Council. A year ago Tim Eggar, Minister of State for Education, warned the examining bodies to be vigilant in watching standards after HMI raised detailed criticisms.
John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, was shocked and decided to make its main verdict public immediately. His statement, fully justified by yesterday's report, came as a bombshell to the four examining groups in England, whose future must now be in doubt.
It is the examiners, rather than the teachers and the schools, who are held responsible for failing to hold the line. The coursework marked by teachers which counts towards students' GCSE grades has been a target of criticism from right-wingers and the Prime Minister, but the inspectors found that standards were consistent except in a small minority of departments where marking and procedures were 'unacceptably poor'. The examining bodies should take firmer action in those 'inexcusable' cases, said the report.
'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 inspectors went on to detail criticisms of the examiners' procedures and the way in which grades were decided based on attending more than 40 meetings of the four groups who decide the GCSE syllabuses, set, mark and monitor the papers: the London East Anglian Group, Midland Examining Group, Northern Examining Association and Southern Examining Group.
The assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar, included in marking schemes for the first time this year, was inconsistent and raised doubts about some of the grades awarded, continued the report.
The main criticism was reserved for the way that the groups decided on grades, rather than the actual examination questions or lax marking. Evidence from this summer's examination meeting reinforced the concern which HM Inspectors had expressed last year. 'The absence of criteria to define minimum standards for grades remains a major weakness. In the absence of such criteria it is worrying that those involved make very limited use of archive scripts to refresh their memories about standards set in previous awards. There was also a lack of timely and relevant statistical considerations in some instances. All of this makes awarding grades a highly subjective process.
'It is therefore difficult to judge whether appropriate standards are being applied and maintained from year to year, although there can be confidence in the professional way in which panels follow the various procedures laid down by the groups.'
The report quoted the 'alarming' remark of one chief examiner who said that grade A standards in GCSE did not have to be as rigorous as for O-level, and a chief moderator who accepted lower grade thresholds because he felt his subject had traditionally been too severely graded compared with other subjects. Marking was generally approved, although in a French examination more candidates achieved the maximum than any other grade and in one computer studies paper candidates could achieve an A grade on the basis of about 30 minutes writing.
GCSE Examinations, Quality and Standards, Summer 1992; HM Inspectorate; HMSO, London.
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