Letter: Exams that help pupils to achieve their potential

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Sir: Since standards, it seems, are crashing down all around, commenting on your leading article on the GCSE (2 September) is risky. However, it is necessary to correct some unfortunate errors.

Examination groups already compete. They are already private (profit-making) organisations. They have already been rationalised to four groups. Quality control over syllabuses is exercised by the (government-appointed) Schools Examination and Assessment Council, which also scrutinises the work of examination groups. Would a board with 'especially high standards' be one which failed more candidates? Such a board would be more likely to lose the custom of schools obliged to publish results in the (government-inspired) league tables.

Outcome measures of education are a matter of public concern; it matters whether the aptitudes of children are being fully developed in schools. Examinations are one (though only one) imperfect measure of students' attainments.

One criticism of the O-level and CSE structure which was replaced in 1986 was that it proved an exceptionally poor way of measuring the achievements of children across the ability range: it did not fully enable them to demonstrate what they knew, understood and could do.

Those being assessed need to feel, as they did not before GCSE, that assessment will positively accredit their efforts and attainments. If GCSE has widened the scope of assessment, it has done so to reflect more sensitively the abilities of teenagers. Whether this reflects a 'decline' in standards, or a 'broadening' or simply a 'change' rather depends on one's perspective.

It is important that education develops the potential of children and reflects the wider (though often conflicting) demands of the community. The debate about whether standards have fallen or risen, and the search for heroes or scapegoats, is less important than the debate about what we want schools to achieve with children, and who we are going to trust to achieve it.

Yours sincerely,


University of East Anglia


3 September