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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Testing the generation gap
Mark Coles
BBC reporter Mark Coles tackles GCSE geography
With the announcement of another rise in GCSE grades comes the familiar cry of: "Are exams getting easier?"

To put the issue to the test, BBC Radio 4's Today programme staged its own "experiment", pitting reporter Mark Coles against the questions of this year's GCSE geography paper.

His rival for the morning was student Matt Parker, now the proud possessor of three A*, five A and three B grades in this year's exams, who agreed to tackle a model O-level geography paper from Mark's era of the 1970s.


We should be looking for year on year improvement, surely that's what we expect

Estelle Morris, School Standards Minister
After a morning of hard scribbling, both concluded that they had found little difference in the actual level of the papers, though inevitably the style of the test had changed considerably over more than 20 years.

"The GCSE exam tends to be more structured with a lot more map work. It's more interpretation-based as opposed to fact," said Matt, a pupil at a Bristol school, who found out on Thursday that he had achieved an A* in his real geography GCSE.

"The level was similar if not the style. Both were equally difficult."

'Feelings of panic'

Mark Coles, who confessed to having swotted up during the half time of a football match the evening before, said: "It was frightening to put it mildly. We didn't have things like global warming in my day. We didn't even have metrification."

A copy of the BBC's Bitesize Guide to Geography assisted the reporter in his task.

He said the level felt approximately the same, but the familiar feelings of panic and writer's cramp had come back to haunt him.
Mark Coles swotting up
"Now, how difficult can global warming be..."

Geography teacher Nick Piggott, from Bloxham School near Banbury, who had been called in to invigilate and mark the exam, awarded both of them top marks.

Mark got an A grade, but just missed out on an A* due more to his exam technique than his knowledge, said Mr Piggott.

Matt emerged with a grade A, the top mark possible for the O-level he had taken.

'Serious purpose'

Commenting on the light-hearted experiment, the School Standards Minister, Estelle Morris, told the Today programme it nevertheless had a serious purpose in highlighting that the standard of exams had not changed essentially.

"I do think it's dispiriting - we spend the year saying to our young people 'You've got to work hard and do well at school'," she said.

"The minute they do that and do better than the previous year the adults turn round and say 'The exams must have been easier'."


The level was similar if not the style. Both were equally difficult

Matt Parker
The minister was speaking after it emerged that there had been an increase of almost 1% in the number of pupils achieving higher grade (A* to C) GCSEs, as well as a rise of 0.2% in the number of pupils passing at all grades.

"We shouldn't take away from the achievements of young people - we should be looking for year on year improvement, surely that's what we expect," she said.

As one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers in the firing line over claims that exams are getting easier, Matt commented: "It's insulting to people who work hard.

"If you've done well it just denounces your efforts, and if you've done badly you can feel more despondent with people saying the exams you've just failed are incredibly easy."


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