Ministers told GCSE needs more levels

FURTHER retuning of the GCSE exam is being planned by ministers, following the furore over a report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate suggesting that higher grades are reflecting lower standards, writes Colin Hughes.

Already ministers have decided that 16-year-olds should sit different GCSE papers, depending on their ability - a move that will mean pupils being entered for one of four papers aimed at different levels.

But John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is being advised that the brightest pupils need to be stretched still further, and the least academically able pupils may be poorly served by GCSEs. The implication is that an even wider range of papers may be offered.

The row broke last week when Mr Patten released an HMI report which concluded that there may have been a 'gradual erosion of standards since the introduction of the GCSE in 1988'.

Mr Patten has no intention of dismantling the GCSE, which he sees as a system within which a range of examining approaches can be adopted. He has also made it clear to close colleagues that neither he nor the Prime Minister wants to bring back O-levels.

But he has told the four free- standing examining groups to propose ways of putting their house in order by 30 September. Since publishing the HMI criticisms, he has received information suggesting that some boards are slacker than others. He has also sent the evidence on which the inspectors based their conclusions to the boards.

Examining boards suspect that the Government is planning to use the criticism as an excuse for scrapping them and creating a new single examination agency. Instead, Mr Patten's advisers are proposing that the exam be placed under closer scrutiny next year, to be followed by a report from Ofsted, the independent inspection authority which was launched last week under the leadership of Professor Stewart Sutherland, vice-chancellor of London University.

If that report, next autumn, concludes that there is an unacceptable variation in grades and syllabuses between different boards, Mr Patten could either create a new board - a kind of 'real education board' - to compete with the existing exam groups, or abolish the boards and opt for a national agency.

A third alternative, however, is more probable. Officials have pointed out that the amalgamation of the School Examinations and Assessment Authority with the National Curriculum Council, proposed in Mr Patten's July White Paper, will create a body that could police the examining boards more tightly, acting as a standards guarantee by requiring the detailed approval of syllabuses and examining methods.

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