Letter: GCSE criticism that shakes students' confidence

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Sir: When I was a senior examiner for O-levels, it was accepted that the average ability among candidates in a large-entry examination was much more likely to remain constant from year to year than either the difficulty of the examination paper or the leniency of the examiners and their moderators. Accordingly, the Secretary of State for Education decided upon the percentage of candidates who should be awarded each grade and recommended that the various boards be guided by this. To depart significantly from this procedure is bound to reduce confidence in GCSE, particularly as the assessment of coursework is inevitably a more subjective exercise than exam marking.

The purpose of a public examination is to spread out, and to distinguish between, candidates, so that their performance can be related to that of their peers. However much egalitarians may desire it, it can never be the attainment of some theoretical standard, like a driving test.

The present system of grading is grossly unjust because one mark can separate critical grades that some employers and sixth-form selectors still regard as a pass/fail boundary. It would be far fairer if each certificate recorded the candidate's rank-order in each subject, together with the total number who sat that exam.

Why should not a candidate who has actually come first out of 20,000 receive credit, rather than be lumped with all the others who scored more than, say, 65 per cent of the marks? This would allow the end-users of the examination to make their own judgements about the candidate when compared with those with whom he or she is competing.

Yours faithfully,


San Pablo de Buceite

Cadiz, Spain

2 September