Patten accused of scaremongering over GCSE

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John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is 'scaremongering' over GCSE standards, Dennis Hatfield, chairman of the Joint Council for the GCSE, said yesterday.

The council, which represents the four examining groups in England and one in Wales, will challenge Mr Patten and Her Majesty's Inspectors to produce evidence that standards are being eroded.

Mr Patten said yesterday that the examining bodies would have to produce improved procedures by the end of the month or the 'public would explode in anger'.

This year's GCSE results were the best so far, with more than 50 per cent of candidates achieving C grade and above, the approximate equivalent of the old O-level. But Mr Patten publicised a report by HM Inspectorate on this summer's main test for 16-year-olds which concluded that 'the evidence could point to a gradual erosion of standards since the introduction of the GCSE in 1988'.

The examining bodies believe that isolated incidents have been used to condemn the whole GCSE system which they say is the most closely monitored examination at school or university level. Until last week Conservative ministers, HM inspectors and the exams' watchdog, the School Examinations and Assessment Council, had been full of praise for GCSE, credited with encouraging greater numbers of young people to stay on at school and college.

Mr Hatfield said he and exam group officials had met Mr Patten a fortnight ago and were told that HM inspectors had criticisms of the way this year's GCSE was run. Mr Patten said he had not studied the HMI report and did not want to comment until he had. The examining bodies asked for evidence and expected further discussions about how their procedures could be improved.

'What I did not expect was that instead of coming back to us Mr Patten would throw the thing out to the general public with some scaremongering comments,' Mr Hatfield said.

'The Secretary of State has gone much further than HMI in the panic button he has pressed following their very generalised statements. The criticisms are based on a very small number of incidents. These have to be put right, but what is most worrying is that the Secretary of State has now put into the minds of young people and their parents the idea that they have got a bogus qualification because the whole thing is too easy. That is absolute nonsense - especially a fortnight after ministers were praising GCSE to the skies.'

In a radio interview yesterday, Mr Patten said he did not control the boards but he had 'quite severe powers' which could be employed if he was not satisfied.

'The general public would explode in anger if at the end of the month they came back and said there was nothing wrong at all and that nothing needs to be changed,' Mr Patten said.

The London East Anglian Group and the Southern Examining Group said the evidence about slipping standards was flimsy and anecdotal.

Mr Hatfield said that the joint council already had a draft standing agreement on procedures for awarding and grading which were criticised by the inspectors. The examining groups would give Mr Patten an interim reply but would not make changes until HM Inspectorate produced evidence that they were needed.

Less than half of first degree graduates are going straight into permanent jobs, according to figures released today by the Universities Funding Council. But they are becoming more mobile as job opportunities decline, with around 5 per cent going abroad to work or study.