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GCSE Alternative

John Simkin

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James Meikle

Thursday November 23, 2006

The Guardian


An alternative to the GCSE exam which has been adopted by a number of fee-paying schools will be condemned today in a report which will in effect rule out its introduction in the state sector.

The report will say there is no way of comparing the standards required for different grades and that the exam does not follow programmes of study required by the national curriculum for 14-16-year-olds. The verdict comes from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the official exam regulator, and Edexcel, one of two boards that offer the International GCSE (IGCSE), in a report published as part of a government consultation on whether the qualification should be freely available in state schools too.

Ministers are understood to be unenthusiastic about the idea of the exam being made available alongside the GSCE, despite the claims of its fans, including the Conservatives, that it is more rigorous and dependent on recall of facts.

Many private schools think it is a better preparation for A-level, particularly in maths and science, and a third of them enter their pupils in at least one subject.

But ministers have only recently approved changes to the GCSE, including new limits on coursework and requirements to stretch brighter pupils, in order to strengthen its credibility. They would be wary of accusations they were going back to a two-tier system akin to O-levels and CSEs, which were replaced in 1988.

They are also preparing to introduce a range of vocational exams for 14-19-year-olds and are reluctant to cause any more upheaval in secondary schools without very strong evidence that other qualifications should be added.

The IGCSE is not banned in state schools, but because it is not regarded as part of the official exam system, the government will not fund schools to enter pupils, nor can it figure in school league tables. This has angered the private schools which enter pupils as they are slipping down the tables as a result. Two hundred of them follow syllabuses set by University of Cambridge International Examinations and 170 by Edexcel. Thousands of students abroad take the exam.

The Conservative schools spokesman, Nick Gibb, pointed to what he saw as an anomaly in government attitudes to an exam which also enjoys a good reputation outside England. Through a series of parliamentary questions, he has found that 13 government departments, including the Department for Education and Skills, are prepared to recruit civil servants with the IGCSE.

"It is a very rigorous examination, used extensively in the independent sector, and we think it only right that the same option should be available in state schools," he said.

The Department for Education and Skills said government human resources departments, like private businesses, recognised a range of qualifications from around the world: "This does not mean they would make appropriate alternatives to the GCSE within the English education system."

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