Results leave opinion split on GCSE: Marginal increase in success rate fuels coursework debate. Judith Judd reports

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CRITICS of the GCSE exam had predicted that this year's reduction in the amount of coursework would lead to worse results.

Right-wingers had argued that coursework, cut this year to about 20 per cent in most subjects, had inflated standards because parents and teachers helped pupils. English teachers said that results would be worse because coursework motivated pupils.

Yesterday's 0.7 per cent increase in the proportion of pupils getting grades A to C, the equivalent of the old O- level, presented difficulties for both theories.

English teachers, who had predicted that results in their subject would be worse, admitted they were wrong. Most pupils took 100 per cent coursework in English last year. This year the percentage is down to 30 per cent. In English the proportion getting the top three grades is up by nearly 1 per cent and the overall pass rate has increased.

This compares with a slight drop in the percentage getting the top three grades in maths though it is less than the increase in science.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: 'The argument that course work is a soft option simply does not hold water. The Government should relax the restriction on course work particularly in subjects such as English where the benefits continue to be well demonstrated.'

Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: 'I am very relieved that the results appear to have come out all right. However, children have still been judged this year on flimsier evidence than they were last.'

However, some experts attributed the slowing in the pass rate to the changes in coursework and to a mandatory code of practice for the exam boards, now in its second year.

Professor Alan Smithers, from Manchester University, said: 'Since the introduction of GCSE the proportion of good passes has gone up from 28 per cent to 41 per cent. Some of this has been attributed to coursework. Now that there is a stronger external element in the examinations we can have more confidence in the results.'

Others are still dissatisfied and believe the doubling in the number of A grades since the introduction of GCSE and the 11 per cent rise in good passes casts doubt on the whole exam. Sir Rhodes Boyson, the former education minister, attacked the idea of GCSE, which replaced O-level for more able pupils and CSE for the less able in 1988.

'It is impossible to mark over a total ability range. I know that as a teacher for 23 years. When we had CSE we knew what that meant and we knew what O-level meant. One would have presumed that there would have been the possibility of a drop but every year it goes up. It is bad money driving out good.'

George Turnbull, of the Southern Examining Group, said: 'The standard required to get grades is constant. It is not any easier this year to get a grade A than it was last.

'The only thing which influences the grades students get are the students themselves.'

(Table omitted)