Patten to regulate GCSE standards

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The Independent Online
AN EXAMINERS' code of practice to maintain GCSE standards between the five examining bodies in England and Wales was disclosed by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday.

He is also considering a fundamental review of the GCSE examining groups as recommended by his advisers in the School Examinations and Assessment Council (Seac).

The move follows a damning report by HM Inspectorate on this summer's examinations taken by about 600,000 students. The inspectors said they had limited confidence that standards were being maintained and called for more consistent procedures across the different examining groups.

In Wales, HM Inspectors concluded that standards were being maintained, while Jeremy Hanley, the minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, praised the work of examiners in producing trustworthy results. The English GCSE groups have strongly defended their results as accurate and accused Mr Patten of scaremongering.

Kathleen Tattersall, secretary of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Council, welcomed the new code which she said was based on the existing agreements between the examining groups. 'It's not something brand new, it's defining and developing what is already in place,' she said.

The schools examination council has not seriously criticised the GCSE since it replaced O-levels in 1988. But yesterday Seac, now chaired by Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, a former Downing Street adviser to Lady Thatcher, said its own scrutiny of the examination process over the past few years had identified 'comparable technical problems' and it had taken steps to limit coursework and stretch more able pupils.

Members told Mr Patten: 'We have now reached the view that it is necessary to increase the transparency of the examining process in order to maintain public confidence in GCSE.'

Better results were to be expected, the council's report said. But it added: 'The sharp increase in the number of school-leavers with five or more GCSE A to C grades in the last two years raises queries about standards which we are investigating'.

The code which Mr Patten has approved in principle will cover the standardisation of marking; the setting of question papers and mark schemes; coursework assessment and moderation; modular testing arrangements; the setting of grade standards and boundaries; and the assessment of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The council made clear to Mr Patten that it wants to go further in establishing control over the examination groups, but warns against setting up a single body. Lord Griffiths wants to appoint his own external assessors.