Tensions in education policy: the public exams crisis and the threat of educational apartheid.

AuthorFisher, Trevor

Accelerating changes in the educational world over the last two decades, amounting to permanent revolution, have transformed the curriculum of state schools and the public exam system. Both public exam and testing regimes have proved controversial, with testing in schools meeting deep rooted opposition.(1) However a less well publicised crisis in the public exams system is now developing. Changes to A Level GCE (18+) and GCSE (16+) due in 2008 and 2009 respectively threaten to damage the credibility of public exams. Unless reversed they could set in train a two-tier examination system.

The current round of public exam reform operates against the background of claims that the 'gold standard' A Level exam and GCSE standards are in decline. Despite the safeguards provided by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), (2) critics have been increasingly vocal. Complaints by the elite Russell Group of universities have been a major factor in driving the reforms, leading to the proposal to institute an A star grade at A Level, reflecting the political importance of university entrance.

Politicians are conscious of the domination of entrance to elite universities by the public school educated upper middle classes. Currently the independent sector, with 8 per cent of sixth formers, obtains 47 per cent of entries to Oxbridge. University entrance is increasingly controversial. 87 per cent of middle class children go to university. Only 14 per cent of lower working class children do. This situation will worsen if the aspirant middle classes believe the state schools cannot deliver access to prestige universities. Over the last decade the numbers of children in fee paying schools have increased significantly at sixth form level.(3) New Labour's reform programme at A Level and GCSE poses a real threat of worsening the situation and could unwittingly trigger a major crisis by triggering a break away exam system.

Public exams under pressure

For over two decades, there has been a wide consensus on the need to have one academic exam system in schools and colleges. Advanced Level GCE has been such a system for over half a century. When GCSE was created by Keith Joseph in 1984 by merging O Level and CSE to produce one system mimicking A Level, the single exam system at 16+ was accepted without serious dispute, leading to a seamless web of academic exams from 14-19. The proposition that Grades A to C were equivalent to O Level pass grades A to C went uncontested. However while all the British based exam boards inaugurated GCSE, the Cambridge International Board (CIE), (4) whose customers were schools overseas maintained the old O Level, but re-badged it as the International GCSE (IGCSE) which was also run by the London Board. The IGCSE has in the last couple of years come to be taken by increasing number of public schools which claim this is an exam superior to GCE. It is not approved for examination in the UK, but the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is controversially under pressure to approve it.

However developments at the 16+ level are marginal compared to the major difficulties with Advanced Level. For several years there have been complaints in the elite Russell Group of Universities about the year on year increases in A Level pass rates and grades. There are now so many top A and B grades that some elite universities have reintroduced their own entrance exams, notably in Law (LNAT) and medicine (BMAT) where demand for places is particularly high. Officially, it has been maintained that rising grades are due to students working harder and teachers teaching better, and until the changes of the year 2000 this was largely unquestioned.

In 2000 the government brought in major reforms, based on the Dearing Report of 1996 and dubbed 'Curriculum 2000'. A long running dispute between the conservative elements in education, who believed passionately in three A Levels as the gold standard, and a 'breadth' lobby who wanted more subjects post-16 was at the heart of Dearing's enquiry. Alas no resolution was possible. Dearing proposed a compromise with students studying four subjects to age...

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