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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 19:59 GMT 20:59 UK
GCSEs fading in importance?
GCSE exam hall
Will GCSEs become the casualty of exam shake-ups?
While more students than ever celebrate their successes in passing GCSEs, the qualification itself could be facing a more uncertain future.

When most pupils left school at the age of 16, the GCSE and its predecessors the O-level and CSE were central to the education system, representing the highest academic levels that most pupils reached.

But with the steady growth in staying-on rates in education, the exam has now been reduced to a stepping stone to higher qualifications - and there have been predictions that the significance of GCSEs will be eroded.

Head teachers' union leader, John Dunford, has forecast that GCSEs could become "progress checks" rather than fully-fledged exams.

With A-levels remaining the "gold standard" of secondary education, he foresees GCSEs as becoming less important, as an excess of qualifications compete for a limited amount of space in school timetables.

This is not argued in the government's consultation paper on the future of secondary education - which says that GCSEs are to continue as a key qualification.

But the shake-up of post-16 exams could prompt a knock-on effect which will affect how GCSEs are treated by pupils, schools and employers.

Over-testing pupils

The introduction of AS-levels in the lower sixth year has drawn complaints of overcrowding in school timetables and over-testing for pupils.

A reaction to this could be that more pupils will take GCSEs a year or two earlier - a trend that the exam authorities already say is apparent, with tens of thousands of 13, 14 and 15-year-old candidates sitting GCSEs this year.

When AS-levels become more established, it is expected that universities will use the qualification in the applications process, which would add considerable importance to the new exam.

If performing well at AS-level becomes important in getting a place at university, then schools will want to give these qualifications greater priority than GCSEs.

This could mean that brighter pupils would either take GCSEs early or perhaps by-pass them entirely - but in either case, the exam would cease to be the traditional end-of-school exam taken at the same time by a whole year group.

The structure of exams for 16-year-olds is also becoming increasinly diverse, with alternatives to the conventional GCSE being promoted in the form of vocational GCSEs and GNVQs.

In an education system which is seeking to put 50% of teenagers into higher education, the GCSE would only be of prime importance to those small minority of students who intended to leave school at 16-years-old.

But exam league tables in England and Wales still provide a large incentive for schools to perform well at GCSE, as rankings of secondary schools are based on GCSE results.

Exam results in the UK



Success stories


Row over new exams


See also:

05 Jun 01 | Education
10 Mar 00 | Unions 2000
26 Aug 98 | Correspondents
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