Monday, August 28, 2006

Top British schools discard dumbed-down government exam system

Some of Britain's most academically successful schools will sink to the bottom of this year's official league tables because they have abandoned "too easy" GCSEs. The schools, including Harrow, Rugby and Manchester grammar, now put their pupils through the international GCSE (IGCSE), which is considered more academically stretching, in subjects such as maths, science and English.

Many experts believe that rather than damage the reputation of the schools, the move will call into question the credibility of the league table system by placing some of the country's best-performing schools near the bottom. The government will this year for the first time publish a national ranking based on the proportion of 16-year-olds gaining five GCSEs at grade C or above that include maths and English.

IGCSEs are not counted as part of the official results because they are not approved by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the government's exam regulator. Many independent schools are dropping the state-approved GCSEs in favour of the international versions because the latter are viewed as more challenging and as a better preparation for A-levels. The exams have mainly been developed for schools overseas and are closer to the former O-levels, scrapped in 1987, rather than to ordinary GCSEs.

Schools offering the IGCSE in maths and English will see steep drops in the number of their pupils getting ordinary GCSEs in these core subjects, pushing them down the rankings. The Department for Education and Skills has no intention of overhauling the league tables to take IGCSEs into account.

Concerns over the academic usefulness of the rankings will be compounded by the high marks given to GNVQs - vocational qualifications. Many state schools have boosted their rankings by encouraging pupils to take GNVQs - vocational qualifications which are rated by the government as equivalent to good GCSE passes.

Ministers have refused to allow IGCSEs to be included in results because the exams do not have official approval. State schools, even the highest achieving, cannot switch to the IGCSE because the government will fund only officially approved courses. The IGCSE is growing in popularity among private schools. Cambridge International Examinations, one of two boards that sets the IGCSE, said that 100 schools offered at least one exam this year.

Independent school heads believe that the decision not to include the IGCSE will make a nonsense of the national school league table. Tim Hands, headmaster of Portsmouth grammar and chairman of the universities committee of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), said: "It is extraordinary that schools like mine will be listed as getting 0% for maths GCSE, yet (the IGCSE) is an exam that is highly rated by universities." The highest take-up of IGCSEs is in maths. It is preferred to the state GCSE because it includes calculus and does not include course work.

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Teachers have told a bright GCSE student she would have to dumb down in order to pass her exams, prompting concerns that examiners are unqualified to mark some papers. Katie Merchant, 16, was marked down for giving a sophisticated answer in her mock Latin exam. She achieved an A* - the highest mark possible - but lost marks on one question because her answer was too sophisticated. Teachers warned the girl she would be similarly penalised in the real exam, prompting her to express her disappointment in a letter to her Brighton college headteacher, Richard Cairns.

Speaking today, Mr Cairns said examiners often marked papers in subjects they knew little about and that he warned his pupils they would often know more about the subject than the marker. He said: "The very brightest are definitely constrained by the exam marking schemes." He said exam boards awarded the highest marks for prescriptive answers containing key words, meaning a pupil who displayed originality was penalised. Mr Cairns said the problem affected all exam boards. He said markers rewarded children for thinking "mechanistically" rather than "outside of the box". "We're getting very good at teaching children to pass exams but less and less good at teaching them to think laterally," he said.

After consultation with Oxford and Cambridge universities, Brighton college is reducing the maximum number of GCSEs students can take from 10 to nine and making time in the curriculum for critical thinking. Mr Cairns said: "Through league tables, teachers [have] become accountable to their pupils. As a result, [they] want more and more information about how to achieve an A*, which has encouraged exam boards to be more prescriptive and killed off independent thought."

He went on: "I tell my students, 'You must expect the examiner to know less than you. He or she will be working to a rigid marking scheme and they need to look out for key things whether or not they're actually relevant." The independent college was the first school in England to introduce the mandatory study of Mandarin for all Year 9 pupils earlier this year.


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