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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Goodbye GCSEs?
Exam
In the struggle between exams will GCSEs be the loser?
GCSEs could be the major casualty of exam overcrowding and the shake-up of the sixth form curriculum, say head teachers' leaders.

There have been complaints from schools that the introduction of new exams - AS-levels and Key Skills - has caused an exam bottleneck and that at least one qualification will have to be abandoned.

These new qualifications, which run alongside the traditional A-levels, have been accused of causing chaos and student stress as they are shoe-horned into already overcrowded timetables.

John Dunford
John Dunford wants a more "coherent" exam system for 14 to 19 year olds

But head teachers' leaders say that the fall-out of this new exam structure could be that the GCSE will become less significant, creating more time for AS-levels and A-levels.

This argument runs counter to claims that it will be the AS-level will be rejected by schools, which might prefer to devote their attention to the "gold standard" of A-levels.

There are also indications that the Key Skills qualification might be ditched by schools seeking to relieve pressure on students.

Flexibility

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says GCSEs could become a "progress check" rather than a fully-fledged exam.

As a declining number of pupils leave education at 16, the exam should become less significant, says Mr Dunford - and greater attention should be paid to AS-levels.

Mr Dunford says that the government's green paper indicates this trend, which could see AS-levels beginning earlier than at present, in a much more flexible exam system for 14 to 19 year olds.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents many of the leading private schools, also foresees a declining role for GCSEs.

University applications

Geoff Lucas, the conference's secretary, says that when the O and A level system was first established it was intended that brighter pupils would by-pass O levels - and that this could finally be introduced.

But he says that pressures to "have something in the bank", in terms of acquiring qualifications, meant that it became standard for all pupils to take external exams at the age of 16.

There were still pressures on schools to maintain the current GCSE system because of exam league tables and their use by universities as part of the admissions process.

But he said that if universities could use AS-levels as indicators of ability, this would make GCSEs much less important for pupils who were staying on to take more advanced qualifications.

'Shambles'

Without a formal GCSE exam, this could see AS-levels taken by some students at 16, making more time for A-levels - and with Key Skills losing out as a full-scale qualification.

Much will depend on university admissions policies. If AS-levels become widely accepted as a factor in determining university places, then they will be more likely to be adopted by schools.

But if universities fail to pay attention to AS-levels, then there could be concerns that these new qualifications are getting in the way of the more important A-levels.

AS-levels have been introduced in response to a longstanding belief that the post-16 exam system was too narrow - with students expected to take four of five AS-levels rather than the typical three A-levels.

Delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference last week attacked the revised exam system as a "shambles" - and were particularly sceptical about the benefits of Key Skills.

See also:

25 May 01 | Education
So what are Key Skills?
02 Jun 01 | Education
Exams stretch schools to the limit
30 May 01 | Education
Sixth form overload 'shambles'
25 May 01 | Education
Tests changed after security breach
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