Once upon a time A- and O- level examinations were taken by a small proportion of the school population, most of whom intended to go to university. It was natural enough that they should be organised by examination boards set up by the universities. They were not then a matter of great interest to the media.
Life has moved inexorably on. GCSE is supposed to be a national exam taken by the vast majority of 16-year-olds, and A-level is now the standard entry requirement after 18. Exam certificates are the criteria for entry into almost any job. The pressure on pupils to achieve the highest possible grades has grown steadily over the years. In addition, the Government has now, for perfectly understandable reasons, transferred much of the onus for achieving good results on to the schools by requiring every school to publish its results.
It is not, however, clear that it realises the full implication of this. The headteacher of the school whose intake is not particularly strong academically and who finds himself or herself in the full glare of media publicity, is bound to consider all possible ways of making his/her results stand up against competing schools. She/he has eight boards to choose from.
These eight boards are in competition with each other, and, true to government philosophy, they all have to pay their own way. The pressure is thus transferred to the examination boards to come up with the type of papers and marking systems that will produce the highest possible grades - their survival depends on it.
Given these realities in the background, a downward spiral in standards seems inevitable, without anyone being readily to blame. It does raise the question, however, as to whether eight examination boards competing commercially are really necessary or desirable. Does not a national curriculum require national exams to monitor it?
Perhaps the existing boards could be reorganised on a national basis to specialise in different curriculum areas, providing some variety in the syllabuses offered but ensuring standards.
James Allen's Girls' School
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